Issue #229  12/28/2016
Daguerreian Collector Matthew Isenburg Passes Away

By Alex Novak

Matthew Isenburg (Photo by David Bohl)
Matthew Isenburg (Photo by David Bohl)

Collector Matthew Isenburg passed away after a long illness on November 14th. He was at his home in Hadlyme, CT, with family members. A private family funeral service was held at his request. A celebration of his life is planned for Spring 2017.

Isenburg was a daguerreian scholar, collector, and founder and moving force behind the Daguerreian Society. He was also a past president of the Society and frequent speaker and writer on daguerreian and 19th-century photography topics. He had been on ArtNews' list of the top 25 Photography Collectors. He was 89 when he passed away.

Isenburg was fascinated by history, which was his Bachelor's degree from Northeastern University. He started as a camera collector with a major interest in Leica's, but switched to collecting early photographica, focusing particular interest on the first 30 years of photography history. Isenburg had often said, "I paid premium prices for best of breed, best in class." Isenburg had owned numerous Ford auto dealerships in the past, whose success afforded him the opportunity to collect. He wasn't just a collector though; he was a photo historian who was always more interested in piecing together the story behind an object or image, than he was about just owning something.

In 1978 he founded the Daguerreian Society with John Wood, serving as president for many years. The Society had many ups and down, but Isenburg would be the one to come to its rescue time and time again. With Matt's encouragement, the Daguerreian Society held its 25th anniversary symposium in Paris in 2013, but his poor health ironically prevented him from attending. Until arthritis set in, Isenburg was an avid piano player. He was known for keeping late hours with his friends.

The Matthew Isenburg photography collection, which was made up of what is considered to be the most important collection of American daguerreotypes in private hands, rare early cameras, an important library and ephemera collection, and other photographs and photographica, had been purchased for a reported $15 million in 2012 in what is probably the highest priced single private sale of 19th-century photography and related material to date. The purchaser was the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) and media magnate David Thomson. Daguerreian dealer Greg French, a long-time daguerreotype dealer and supplier of some of the material in the collection, brokered the deal.

The focus of the Isenburg collection was its daguerreotypes. There is even a book on the Isenburg collection, "American Daguerreotypes from the Matthew R. Isenburg Collection" by Richard S. Field and Robin Jaffee Frank. The book was published by the Yale University Art Gallery in 1989. Some of the daguerreotype rarities included:
--A full-plate dag by John Plumbe of the U.S. Capitol Building under construction.
--Numerous gold-mining daguerreotypes.
--Probably the most important collection of Southworth & Hawes daguerreotypes in private hands, including many full plates.
--Numerous occupational daguerreotypes.

The collection also contained very rare early cameras, camera outfits, daguerreotype cases of all types, and photographic supplies and equipment. There were over two dozen daguerreotype cameras (the most ever assembled by any collector or institution), over three dozen wet plate cameras, and a large volume of equipment. Other cameras ranged from tiny spy cameras to stereo cameras. Manuscripts, magazines, broadsides and books of the period added to the unique collection. And early photographic ephemera was the final category that fleshed out the non-photograph holdings.

The collection was gifted to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 2015 for inclusion in a larger collection called Origins of Photography.

For more on the collection and sale: http://www.iphotocentral.com/news/article-view.php/203/193/1228/0/3/10/archive.

Just a final personal note. Matthew was passionate about early photography and his friendships. He truly loved the research and the details about what he collected. I will always value his personal friendship and his contribution to this field. My condolences to his family and friends, including his children, Michael Loyd and Lynn Heckett.