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Art: American Daguerreotypes

Courtesy photo


The Wichita Art Museum has unveiled their newest exhibition Photographic Wonders: American Daguerreotypes from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. A Daguerreotype is one of the earliest forms of photography. Invented in France by Louis Daguerre in 1839, Daguerre revolutionized scientific observation as well as art. He discovered how to fix an image on to a silver plate with out it fading away – something his predecessors had not yet solved.

For the presentation of these one-of-a-kind objects, WAM has darkened the gallery, lighting only what is necessary. Spotlights illuminate wall texts, benches, and large plate daguerreotypes, while numerous light boxes holding majority of these photographic treasures line the gallery walls.

This heavy chiaroscuro lighting is for preservation purposes, but is it also creates a high- drama setting--much like the tenebrism of a Caravaggio painting – that sets a theatrical mood for Photographic Wonders.

The exhibition is divided into thematic sections. Each presents a slice of American history from the mid-1800s. See American heroes like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the everyday faces of Americans, and urban and rural images of an America in the throws of Westward Expansion.

The exhibition concludes with a big interactive finish. A mock studio is set-up with a velvet curtain backdrop, table, and a wooden chair. Behind the chair is a head clamp – a device used to keep portrait sitters still during the long exposure times – and visitors are encouraged to give it a whirl.

What I love about daguerreotypes is the remarkable clarity of the reflected surface that makes image hauntingly beautiful. But what I love just as much as the daguerreotypes are the cases holding them. The delicate tin frame, the filigree patterns in the velvet opposite the silver plate, and the handheld size that makes these objects so personal, so precious.