DATE: August 26, 2007
In late 2005, Hallmark Cards donated its remarkable,
choice, and extensive collection of photographs (some 6,500 in all) to
the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. With the opening of the
new Bloch wing on June 9th, and Keith F. Davis's formidable show
"Developing Greatness: The Origins of American Photography, 1839 -1885,"
the geography of photographic collections has been redrawn. Kansas
City is no longer a "fly-over" city for students and lovers of
photography. In fact, if you're interested in understanding the origins
of photography, or American art history, "Developing Greatness" is a
"must see" show.
The show begins with over 165 daguerreotypes
expertly lit with fiber optics in specially designed cases. There are
several rare, small, primitive portraits from the first months of
photography, including a previously unknown self-portrait by Henry
Insley from ca. late 1839, and two works by Robert Cornelius. Samuel
Bemis's whole plate view of the Lafayette House at Franconia Notch,
N.H., would be a masterpiece of composition from any point in the
Daguerrian era, but the primitive quality of the technique and the
other-worldly rendering of trees on the mountain side give the
impression that the artist was an astronomer catching the first
nanosecond from the big bang of photographic light.
Maker, American. Clown, ca. 1850–1855.
Daguerreotype, sixth plate,
image size: 2 3/8 x 1 7/8
inches. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
is another previously unknown plate: an interior view of two rooms of a
Daguerrian studio. The first and closest room could be the waiting
room of a daguerreotypist of modest means; a common domestic interior
with low ceilings, spare furniture, and framed daguerreotypes on the
wall. It is washed in gentle, low, early morning or late afternoon
light. A man is seen through a doorway in a second room; he is seated
in profile with a contemplative gaze, facing a window. It is apparent
that he is in a workroom (above the doorway are the words "No
Admittance"), and is busy assembling a daguerreotype for a customer. A
unique and innovative composition, the clarity, natural light, and size
of the image makes the viewer feel as if they have gone through a key
hole with Alice to view a scene from another world.
Except for the radical leap in technologies, the daguerreotype was a
direct descendent of hand-painted portraits on ivory made in similar
scale and presented in similar hinged leather cases. While all
daguerreotypists borrowed something from this earlier tradition, a few
went far beyond any painterly precedents.
Edwards, American (1831–1900). Steamships
at Cotton Wharf, New
Orleans, ca. 1857–1860. Salt
print, 5 1/2 x 7 7/8 inches. Courtesy
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
On view by Southworth and Hawes,
for example, is a delicately rendered sixth plate of frost patterns on a
window. This photograph is a radical departure from both the tradition
of portrait painting, and from any "normal" use of the daguerreotype,
which was largely applied to portraiture. All other photographs of
natural forms are descended from this photograph and a small handful of
remotely comparable examples. And of the progeny, few are as beautiful
D. Fredricks, American (1823–1894).
Fredricks' Photographic Temple of
New York,1857. Salt print from wet-collodion negative,
16 1/8 x 13 1/2 inches. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
show also includes a Southworth and Hawes portrait of Mary Hawes, the
artist's daughter. The young girl is standing and holding on to a chair
in an evocative and painterly pose. We would be viewing a masterpiece
if that were all that was going on. However, her dress is beautifully
tinted red and clouds have been painted in the background, probably by
the child's mother. With no horizon line or other spacial reference,
it's not clear if the chair is an oversized prop or if the young girl is
much larger than a normal size chair. The space of the picture becomes
intriguingly ambiguous, and the viewer is forced to wonder if the scene
was made on a cloud or on earth.
& Hawes, American (Albert Sands Southworth
, 1811–1894; Josiah
Johnson Hawes, 1808–1901). Harriet
Beecher Stowe, ca. 1843–1845.
plate, image size: 3 3/4 x 2 7/8 inches. Courtesy
Museum of Art.
The Russell Miller portrait of
an artist painting a trompe l'oeil backdrop has been very well received
since it first surfaced about twenty years ago. An elderly woman
standing in front of it expressed a commonly held sentiment: "WOW!!!
......... WOW!!!.........WOW!!! The brilliance of this work is poignant.
While very little else by Miller is known, it seems impossible that a
work of this quality could have been a strictly "one-off" production.
What else might this brilliant daguerreotypist have made, and where are
Next is a portrait of a young man sitting precariously on a chair with
his mouth wide open and his whole visage expressing alarm or excitement.
This marks an important point in the mid-Precambrian era of
photography. It's one of the earliest photographs of human emotion.
The sixth plate of gravediggers may be unique in the Daguerrian era.
The sky has a dense, iridescent blue color caused by over exposure,
which gives a bizarre, otherworldly feeling. One of the figures is
wearing an unusual Transylvanian style cape. The image looks as if it
could be an illustration from an Ambrose Bierce story, or a still from a
Rod Serling or David Lynch screenplay.
Other treasures include an astonishing whole-plate view of the interior
of a butcher shop, a profile portrait of Frederick Douglass, a
barn-raising scene, a uniquely artistic "trophies of the hunt"
still-life from 1842, and an outdoor view of boys playing marbles. All
of these are "new" additions to our historical knowledge: none have ever
before been published.
At some point the reader may wonder whether the reviewer is suffering
from irrational exuberance or whether this is really a great show. The
curator, Keith Davis, often "blasted" many of the finest pieces out of
private collections. Most collectors and curators have no choice but to
wait for a great piece to come to the market place. However, thanks to
the generous support and forward thinking of Donald J. Hall, Hallmark's
Chairman of the Board, Mr. Davis was given the means to develop a
collection of international importance. This was done through
"blasting": steady travel, lots of study, networking, and a willingness
to pay a fair (or even "full") price for great pieces. The result is an
unusually large number of national treasures of photography in one
The 122 paper photographs are equally stunning and important. Many of
the most famous practitioners are represented, with both familiar and
little-known masterpieces. This section begins with pre-Civil War work
by J. B. Greene—the brilliant young American based in Paris—Samuel
Masury, and Charles D. Fredricks. A large group of Western landscapes
includes signature works by Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton E. Watkins,
Eadweard Muybridge, and William Henry Jackson. The Civil War section is
equally memorable. A.J. Russell's photograph "Fredericksburg: Rebel
Caissons Destroyed by Federal Shells" is a stark record of the
impossible and unimaginable horrors of war. The dead horses are almost
too contorted and abstract to be read as horses. The caissons look as
if they have been up ended and littered by a tornado. The three Union
figures stand somberly staring at the ground as if they are wondering
how such devastation is possible. Other prints in this section include
Alexander Gardner's rare series of the hanging of the Lincoln
conspirators, and a previously unpublished portrait of General William
T. Sherman and his son.
The show concludes with a variety of works from the 1870s and early
1880s, from lively cartes-de-visite and stereographs to Lewis
Rutherfurd's celebrated 1865 view of the moon, and a pristine copy of
William Bradford's lavish album, "The Arctic Regions."
While large, this show is not overwhelming. Instead it is inviting and
inspiring: a memorable overview of a most remarkable subject. One of
the best shows of early American photography ever produced, it is a
true "must see".
By AIPAD Member Mack Lee