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A World Captured on Silver

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

The more images proliferate in contemporary life, the harder it becomes to imagine a world where seeing a picture ranked as a momentous event. An altarpiece in a shrine, a window in a church, a mural on the wall of a government chamber, an engraving in a book, a decoration on a jar, perhaps a shopkeeper’s sign--for most of human history, the encounter with pictures was more uncommon than ordinary. An engrossing new exhibition of mid-19th century photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood manages to make you feel the multifaceted magic of the brief period when, suddenly, all those long-established rules for seeing pictures changed.

Before photography, the relative rarity of a pictorial encounter made the experience automatically distinctive, which meant that control of the creation and display of images could function as a dramatic emblem of power and authority. Just by virtue of its being, a picture commanded attention. “This is important,” pictures said, and it was easy to believe them.

Today, the rarity goes the other way. Try to imagine getting through a day without seeing a single image, never mind hundreds, even thousands of them.

The pivot between image-sparse history and image-glutted today is, of course, the invention of the camera, which had been dreamed of for centuries but was only realized about 160 years ago. Image proliferation had taken a big leap forward in the 15th century with the advent ofthe printing press, which could make pictures multiply, but the camera was an exponentially bigger step.

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“The Art of the Daguerreotype” demonstrates why. This exquisite overview of pictures from the 1840s and 1850s, which surveys many of the finest examples in the Getty’s large and critically important collection of early photographs, is seductive in the extreme. It includes many riveting pictures, among them an unknown American’s haunted portrait of an emotionally bereft Edgar Allan Poe made a few short months before the writer’s death in 1849; John Jabez Edwin Mayall’s mammoth print of a contemporaneous--and similarly mammoth--engineering feat, “The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, London” (1851); and, another unknown daguerreotypist’s powerful double portrait of a black nurse holding a white child, which is like a devastating hundred-year-old echo of a famous 1950s photograph in Robert Frank’s epochal “The Americans.” The high level of quality maintained by the assembled works is such that it’s easy to understand the public pandemonium for pictures that followed from the announcement of the daguerreotype process.

Organized by curator Weston Naef, the show coincides with the publication of “The Silver Canvas: Daguerreotype Masterpieces from the J. Paul Getty Museum.” Authors Bates Lowry and Isabel Barrett Lowry have written a compelling, eminently readable account of the creation, refinement and almost instantaneous proliferation of the daguerreotype process. They also offer a thoroughly researched analysis of most of the show’s exceptional examples.

The invention of photography is a notoriously tangled tale. So many technical experiments were being undertaken simultaneously by so many different explorers on the frontiers of visual science that it was only a matter of time before a solution would be found to the problem of how to permanently fix a transient image made by light passing through a lens. Among competing processes, which bear such romantic names as the heliograph and photogenic drawing, the daguerreotype is the one that secured photography as truly a done deal.

In fact, we typically date the so-called invention of the whole photographic medium to 1839--the year Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre sold the formula for his process to the French government, in exchange for a lifetime annuity. Widely published, the process was an immediate sensation. Within a decade, 3 million daguerreotypes a year were being made in the United States alone.

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Daguerre’s somewhat complicated process is spelled out in a helpful information gallery adjacent to the show, thanks to a display of vintage equipment loaned by Connecticut collector Matthew Isenburg. Characterized by extraordinarily precise and intricate detail, a daguerreotype is not a photograph reproduced on paper, as we’re used to seeing, but a unique image on a copper plate. It’s made like this: The plate is coated with silver, polished to a bright sheen, chemically treated and exposed to light focused through a lens. Then, the exposed plate is bathed in the vapors of heated mercury, blackening the fine mist of light-sensitized silver iodide until the picture is fully developed.

These materials, with their aura of the alchemist’s laboratory, endow daguerreotypes with a poetic charm distinct from any other kind of photograph. What is a polished silver surface, after all, but another name for a mirror? When you look at a daguerreotype, whose picture shimmers and shifts according to the angle of ambient light, it’s like seeing the normally transient image in a mirror suddenly fixed for eternity, a meticulous shadow you can gather up and hold in your hand.

Most of the 87 daguerreotypes in the three main exhibition rooms are installed behind glass in specially built cases, with concealed pin-spots to control the light and a railing on which to rest your elbows. Against a black background, the silvered pictures sparkle like diamonds strewn across velvet.

Occasionally, as in Ezra Greenleaf Weld’s amazing little picture of Frederick Douglass and associates gathered for an 1850 convention on fugitive slave laws, held in upstate New York, the daguerreotype is too small to be satisfactorily examined in the display case. Elsewhere, as in a clever setup for showing a 3-D image of a recumbent nude by means of an antique stereoscope, the presentation couldn’t be better.

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Overall, the seductive glamour of the display is just right, given that we’re dealing with the decisive fallout of an invention by Daguerre. Spectacle was his business. Not just your run-of-the-mill showman, Daguerre was positively Spielbergian in scope and ambition: He ranks as probably the first modern genius in the now far-flung field of visual special effects.

By his early 30s, Daguerre had built a reputation as a consummate set designer for the theater. Soon, his work evolved into the creation of huge and elaborate panoramas and dioramas, painted on vast canvases of diaphanous gauze that could be transformed into a shifting, illusionistic tour de force through carefully manipulated illumination. The dioramas, shown to gasping crowds in specially constructed theaters in Paris, seemed to transport viewers to ancient Rome or the scene of an avalanche in the Swiss Alps.

There’s something satisfying in the knowledge that an early FX impresario is the one who finally nailed down the eagerly sought-after photographic process. Like the American art museum, which had its roots as much in P.T. Barnum’s displays of bunkum as in the rarefied collections assembled by European aristocrats, photography drew vivid life from its vulgar origins.

Something of that brilliant energy radiates from Mayall’s stunning daguerreotype of London’s sensational Crystal Palace, built as a demonstration of advanced industrial prowess. Its designer, Joseph Paxton, created the first modern structure solely of steel and glass, materials whose mesmerizing combination of resilient strength and transparency could articulate an airy space so large as to encompass indoors several of Hyde Park’s venerable elm trees.

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Mayall’s picture, shot from the second level in order to gather in the full sweep of both the expansive floor area and the vaulted ceiling, is of course monochromatic, thus missing Paxton’s lively interior palette of steel beams painted crimson, light blue and cream. Still, this daguerreotype creates an inescapable impression that the image, in its mechanically produced precision, is virtually one with its luminous subject. Paxton’s amazing building is shown establishing dominion over nature, just as you sense Daguerre’s invention has begun to assert dominion over the visual world.

The show also includes one gallery devoted to 29 daguerreotypes by Jean-Gabriel Eynard, a Swiss financier and diplomat who trained his valet, Jean Rion, to assist him in making pictures. A veritable one-man exhibition, the in-depth display should begin to seriously widen and elevate Eynard’s reputation from what it is today: a rather obscure figure known mostly to specialists.

Eynard’s daguerreotypes are straightforward but elegantly composed tableaux whose range of subjects compose a virtual inventory of aristocratic life in mid-19th century Europe: family, servants, possessions, hobbies, outings, house and garden. If photography was just beginning to establish its pictorial dominion, here are pictures by a wealthy and powerful man, emblematic of the highest reaches of establishment society. When you see his many self-portraits and several self-portraits with his wife adoring him, but can find none that show his wife alone as an independent human being, you couldn’t ask for a clearer image of the network of power relations in place in Eynard’s day.

What gives his work a particular frisson, however, is the way it contains one potent seed of that establishment’s destruction. Eynard was strictly an amateur daguerreotypist--gifted, certainly, but a hobbyist all the same, not unlike the multitudes who would eventually form the camera-toting ranks of the 20th century. Whatever else it is, photography turned out to be a powerfully democratizing force. “The Art of the Daguerreotype” begins to show a whole new range of faces inexorably turning up in its seductive mirror.

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* J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, through July 12. Information and parking reservations: (310) 440-7300.


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