One of the very first things I collected, back when I was a teenager, was early photographic images. The collection was initially spurned by my interest in 19th century costuming, and what better way to view all the variations in fashion than straight from the photographic source.
Here's my 10,000 foot briefing on the history of 19th century photography- if you want to go more in depth, I highly recommend Dressed for the Photographer and My Likeness Taken both by
Joan L. Severa, retired Curator of Costume at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Photography, as we know it today, was invented by Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) of Val-d'Oise France, in collaboration with Nicéphore Niépce, a fellow French inventor. After Niépce's sudden death in 1833, Daguerre continued to refine the process until 1839 when he went public with his invention, called the Daguerreotype. The process used some fancy science, that I won't delve into since this is a design blog, to capture an image on a polished silver plate. The plate sizes included 1/9, 1/8, 1/6, 1/4, 1/2, and full. 1/8 plates are about 3 inches tall. Full plates were prohibitively expensive during the 19th century, therefore rarely made, therefore more scarce and so, highly coveted by collectors today.
The earliest known photograph of a living person, titled Boulevard Du Temple, shows a downtown French street. The individual captured is having his shoes shined. Ironically, the only reason he is the sole (haha) person captured on a bustling city street is because he stood still for the extended period of exposure, usually about two minutes, that daguerreotypes required.
|Boulevard Du Temple. The figures are standing at the end of the sidewalk in the lower left corner of the image.|
Because the daguerreotype was captured on a reflective silver plate, frequently Sheffield silver plate, it is easy for the novice collector to spot them in the wild due to their mirror like appearance. Sadly, this silver plate process proved to be the downfall of the daguerreotype. In the short term its expense made it an easy target for the competing ambrotype and tintype, invented in the 1850s and 60s respectively. In the long term the silver surface of the daguerreotype tarnished if not kept away from oxidation by a protective panel of glass. Many of these images are now mere ghosts of their former selves, faded beyond recognition.
|A daguerreotype of an unknown man. The piece has faded and is in poor condition.|
In terms of value early photographic images abide by the same rules that dictate all antiques- condition, quality, and rarity. Condition speaks for itself. When we consider quality and rarity, one hopes to find images that have intriguing and unique subject matter. For portraiture, which was the most common form of mid 19th century photography, the most desirable subjects included:
- occupational portraits, such as that of a fireman dressed in his uniform, or an architect with his drawings and tools
|This occupational dag of a locksmith is outstanding, |
and certainly a piece that any sincere collector would wish to acquire.
- children with toys or pets, the more charming the better
|This fantastic portrait of a young girl and her dog brought $3100 at Cowan's Auction in 2005.|
- animals alone or prominently featured
|This portrait of a small mixed breed dog, Nero, owned by the Barton family, is in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society. The hand tinted gold collar is a wonderful touch.|
- large groups of people, the bigger the better
|here we have a wonderful example, of the Jackson Family, taken by Whipple Studio in Boston in 1846.|
- anything that depicts an outlandish or taboo act. One of my favorite examples in this category is a portrait in Joan Severa's book, My Likeness Taken. The image is of the back of a young man's head. His meticulously oiled and coiffed hairdo is proudly displayed, and even better, he's shirtless.
|This dag of actress Eliza Logan, dramatically posed as if praying, is a rare and unique find.|
More rare for 19th century photography are outdoor scenes, including those of buildings, large gatherings or events, city scenes, and landmarks. I've included some examples below.
|Cowan's auction handled this wonderful 1/2 plate outdoor scene of a a building and family group not long ago.|
|And here is one of the earliest images of Niagara Falls. Sadly, it is in poor condition.|
Now when we're discussing what this rarity and quality equates to in terms of monetary value the sky is the limit. For a typical daguerreotype portrait, say of a young couple like the one pictured below, or the rather tired looking mother with her two rambunctious children also below, you can expect to pay around $45-$75. For pieces that include rare or important subject matter I'd encourage you to consult the catalog from the November 5th, 2011 photography sale at Skinner's here. For a good, rare, and early piece, in excellent condition, five figures is not out of the question.
|from a private collection|
|From a private collection. Interesting to note that the young girl appears to be holding another cased photograph.|
The ever-growing collection my mother and I amassed is neatly tucked away in the multiple drawers of a bright yellow 19th century apothecary chest in my parent's front hall.