28 September 2010

The Daguerreotype portrait: the aesthetics of the real

The notion of what we may call an “artless art” was applied at different times, and with different intentions, to photography and the Daguerreotype. The image produced “directly” by nature, bypassing the intervention of the hand of the artist, was the object of amazement at first, and praised for its astounding fidelity of detail: an “art form” therefore that “no painter could ever match”. 

The popularization of the daguerreotype as the 19th century progressed, brought about by technical improvements allowing for the mass production of images and specially, for the first time, the mass production of portraits, produced also as a counter-current, a kind of  “over familiarity” with the daguerreotype portrait. And with it, a relative weariness about the repetitious, the unstudied, the narrowly documentary and "vulgar" or commonplace qualities (issues only partially explained by inherent  limitations of the Daguerreotype technique for portraiture, such as exposure time requirements, etc) of the vast majority of rapidly created images by a growing industry of photographic studios catering to the needs and the taste of the majority.

And yet, from these vast collections of portraits, both in Europe and in the US, works emerged in which something as a new sensibility and a "new aesthetics" related to the formal and expressive possibilities proper to the photographic medium was adumbrated, expressed or anticipated. These are portraits by known or anonymous artists and craftsmen of photography in which, at different levels, the photographer's empathy with the subject and his handling of the new medium sparks a new kind of vision and a new type of record of character, mood and circumstance able to transcend the limited circle and functions of the everyday image.

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima

 Gustav Oehme, Three Young Girls, Daguerreotype, c.1845


Unknown photographer, Portrait of Frederick Douglas, Daguerreotype, 1847


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