Through the Lens: Early Photography and the Cased Photograph Collection at the Maryland Historical Society
The Cased Photograph Collection in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library is a remarkable slice of photographic history. The nearly 600 item collection contains daguerreotypes, tintypes, and other examples of the earliest photographic technology. These photographs capture domestic scenes from Maryland life—family portraits, souvenir snapshots, and rare outdoor scenes.
In 1839, Louis Daguerre introduced an invention to that would change the world—the daguerreotype. He and his partner Nicéphore Niécpe, creator of heliography, the first photographic format, experimented for years with different processes to render permanent images from a camera obscura with chemicals and light. Earlier attempts required impractically long exposure times and the image was impermanent. Niécpe’s first successful heliograph, “View from the Window at Le Gras,” required several hours of exposure to affix the scene onto a pewter plate. After Niécpe’s sudden death in 1833, Daguerre continued their work. He eventually landed upon the use of silver iodide and light to fix the scene onto a thin, silver-plated copper sheet. The metal plate was then exposed to mercury fumes to develop and washed in salt water or sodium thiosulfate. This method allowed for shorter exposure periods and created a more durable image. It’s popular and scientific uses were quickly realized, and millions of daguerreotypes were produced across Europe and the United States.
When photography reached the United States, daguerrean studios cropped up in towns across the East Coast. In 1840, Henry Fitz, Jr. opened Maryland’s first photography studio in Baltimore. Fitz’s interest in telescopes and optics brought him into the burgeoning photography industry. He worked with fellow telescope enthusiast and amateur photographer Alexander Wolcott on producing mirrors for commercially manufactured cameras. He only operated his studio until 1842, but his impact on camera technology was significant. In the earliest days of portrait photography, exposures took up to fifteen minutes, which made it difficult to capture a clear image, as the sitter was required to sit perfectly still. The cameras they collaborated on decreased exposure times and allowed for better portraiture. Fitz also produced one of the earliest known self-portraits taken with a camera.
Over 200 photographs in the Cased Photograph Collection are daguerreotypes. Many Marylanders sat for portraits at local studios as the industry expanded, but early adopters ventured north to New York and Philadelphia for their portraits. The collection holds the likenesses of many notable members of Maryland’s elite, including the Cohens, Howards, and Tilghmans. Almost all families of means had daguerreotype portraits taken as it was quite fashionable. Portraits could cost upwards of five dollars—nearly a week’s wages for many families—initially limiting the technology to the wealthy. But the booming popularity of photography fueled fast innovation, and quickly, it became much more accessible to the masses.
Daguerreotypes of African American subjects are relatively uncommon. In the northern states, African Americans opened photography studios, and members of the black middle class, such as businessmen and clergy members, partook in the new portrait trend. On occasion, **enslavers commissioned the photography of favored persons under their enslavement. The Cased Photograph Collection holds three such images. The most common of these photographs are of enslaved nurses with their white charges. Martha Ann “Patty” Atavis, an enslaved woman, was photographed in the 1850s alone, and with Anna Whitridge. Dr. John Whitridge purchased Atavis from Ruth McCubbin for $200 in 1839. Despite living to see the end of slavery in the United States, she stayed with the Whitridges until her death in 1874. She cared for the family’s children in their Baltimore home for almost 40 years and was buried in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery. A portrait of Jeremiah and Venus Tilghman is another example. **The couple was enslaved by Colonel Benedict William Hall of Eutaw. Hall had extensive land holdings in Harford County and along Herring Run in Baltimore, and over twenty enslaved men and women worked Hall’s estates. It is not known whether they lived and worked in Baltimore or Harford County or if they were ever emancipated, but their memory lives on in this portrait.
As more and more people had their portraits taken, loved ones desired copies and demand for images of celebrities grew. Galleries of daguerreotypes of famous people opened and lithographs made from daguerreotypes became popular keepsakes. The “Painter” daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe in the collection is a well-studied and high quality copy of an earlier photograph. Annie L. Richmond, a close friend of Poe, gifted his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, a copy of her beloved portrait of Poe, which was taken shortly before his death in 1849. Produced in the early 1850s, the copy bears an identical image of the mustachioed and wild haired author, but is smaller in size than the original. Clemm, in turn, gave the photograph to her friend William Painter, a Baltimore businessman. The portrait passed through the Painter family until 1981 when it was donated to the Maryland Historical Society. The new technology was also used to reproduce paintings and works of art. Families often had painted portraits photographed to share them and protect them. Several of such copies are in the Cased Photograph Collection, including a reproduction of a stunning Gilbert Stuart portrait of famed Baltimorean Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.
The photography industry was ever-changing in its earliest period. Inventors and enthusiasts experimented with different development processes and mediums for capturing images to create better photographs. For example, Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered a new photographic method in 1840 which rendered images on paper rather than metal like the daguerreotype. Talbot’s process, known as a calotype or talbotype, differed as a negative was first created on photosensitive paper which was then transferred onto another piece of photosensitive paper as a positive. A calotype portrait of an older woman, initially identified as Mrs. Baltzer Schaeffer, is likely the oldest photograph in the collection. The identification is probably incorrect as Mrs. Schaeffer died in 1823, well before the advent of photography, but she is clearly a woman of means and importance. The calotype never caught on commercially in the United States, so relatively few exist.
By the 1850s, a new type of photograph, the ambrotype, supplanted the daguerreotype. They gained commercial popularity because was they were cheaper to produce–using glass rather than metal plates coated in costly silver. They also lacked the reflective and sometimes difficult to view quality of daguerreotypes. A number of excellent examples of ambrotypes can be found in the collection. Of particular interest is that of the McKim family at Niagara Falls in the 1860s. The photograph was likely taken by Platt D. Babbitt, who became well-known for his souvenir photograph business at the Falls.
The Civil War greatly impacted the advancement of photographic technology. The tintype was widely adopted during the war because of its durability—the image was supported on metal rather than glass—and development took mere minutes. Invented in 1856, tintypes were also much cheaper alternative to ambrotypes and daguerreotypes. Portraits cost as little as a few cents to produce, so photography was now available to even those of modest means. Countless Union and Confederate soldiers had tintypes made for their families and sweethearts. Enterprising photographers would even set up temporary studios outside of army camps. Tintypes also became popular souvenirs at beach resorts and carnivals. These were often silly or comedic. Subjects were often dressed in costume, wielded props, and posed before a painted backdrop. Tintypes represent a third of the Cased Photograph Collection, attesting to their popularity. Card photographs, such as cabinet cards and cartes de visite, ended the era of cased photographs by the 1870s, as once again, technological advancements improved printing techniques.
Cased photographs present unique preservation challenges. Their fragile nature requires attentive care and maintenance. Prolonged exposure to light, air, and humidity can damage the images, and inevitable wear and tear can cause any number of problems. Daguerreotypes, in particular, can suffer when the seal between the glass and case is broken. The process used to create the photographs can cause deterioration, such as tarnishing or pitting in the metal plate. Over the past few months, the Special Collections team has been working on a conservation plan for the Cased Photograph Collection to ensure that these treasures exist in perpetuity. The aim is to identify the most at-risk objects and ameliorate the current issues, and for those items in more stable condition to prevent any future damage. Photograph conservators at the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts recently worked on several of the collection’s most valuable photographs in preparation for display in future exhibitions.
Daguerre’s invention spurred a revolution that can be felt even today. Photography has changed and morphed tremendously in its nearly 200 years of existence and has become a part of everyday life. Modern cultural heritage institutions now collect digital photographs and iPhone snapshots, but cased photographs remain prized for their complexity and uniqueness. (Lara Westwood)
**Please Note: The text of this 2018 blog post originally used the language “slave owners had favored slaves photographed” and “the couple was owned by Colonel Benedict William Hall of Eutaw.” We acknowledge the harmful impact of this language. The Maryland Center for History and Culture works to provide people-first description within its newly created records and publications, and is actively working to assess, repair, and/or contextualize language and biases in legacy description and MCHC-created publications. This is an ongoing and evolving process. When alerted to the language here, MCHC staff assessed and modified the text. As this work continues, we welcome feedback and notifications on outdated language to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources and Further Reading:
Eaton, George T. Conservation of photographs. Rochester, NY: Eastman Kodak Co., 1985.
Kelbaugh, Ross J. Directory of Maryland photographers, 1839-1900. Baltimore, MD: Historic Graphics, 1988.
Kelbaugh, Ross J. Introduction to African American photographs, 1840-1950: identification, research, care & collecting. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 2005.
Rempel, Siegfried. The care of photographs. New York: Lyons & Burford, 1987.