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‘In Focus: Daguerreotypes’ at the Getty explores the first widely popular form of photography

Getty Daguerreotype

An uiidentified daguerreotypist displays a selection of daguerreotypes in 1845.

(The J. Paul Getty Museum)

There are lots of portrait photos in the Getty Museum’s exhibition “In Focus: Daguerreotypes,” but not many smiles. The photographers would not have been urging their subjects to say “cheese.”

Daguerreotypes, named for Frenchman Louis Daguerre, who invented the process in 1839, were the first widely popular form of photography. But the people who posed for them throughout the 1840s and 1850s seldom looked happy. Who would be, when the sitter had to keep perfectly still for at least a few minutes and sometimes much longer to avoid having his or her face come out blurry?

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“Now you associate smiles with photographs,” said Getty curator Karen Hellman, “but because they had to sit still for so long, probably the most comfortable way to sit was to let your face go slack.”

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Graham Nash, who’s been a serious photographer and photography collector almost as long as he’s been a star singer and songwriter, owns a large trove of daguerreotypes and has lent 15 to go with 42 from the Getty’s own holdings. The exhibition runs through March 20.

Nash knows that unsmiling feeling. One day in 1969 he stood still for a protracted time, face frozen, in the shade of a great oak tree in the backyard of a house bandmate David Crosby was renting in Novato. Nash and his three costars in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — plus bassist Greg Reeves and drummer Dallas Taylor — were posed in front of a box camera from the mid-1800s, wielded by photographer Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal. They waited — and waited — for his signal that they could finally relax.

The results are in every household that harbors a copy of the group’s 1970 album, “Déjà Vu.” O’Neal recalled recently that his six subjects had kept their unsmiling gaze for 21/2 minutes, then repeated the process for a second shot.

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“They were real good sports, but when I said, ‘OK, that’s it,’ they were rather vocal,” O’Neal said. The musicians’ noisy expression of relief told him there would be no third shot.

At the urging of Stephen Stills, the band members had decided to pose for their album cover as Civil War-era renegades and donned costumes to dress the part. O’Neal used tintype photography, which had succeeded daguerreotypes in the 1860s, partly because it was faster and less taxing for subjects.

Are faces in old daguerreotypes saying something more authentic about those people than our reflexive smiles for the camera say about us?

There was a miscalculation, as it turned out, that left the images from O’Neal’s rented hundred-year-old camera too dark, and he wound up improvising the next best thing: He subjected modern 35-millimeter negatives he’d shot simultaneously to a process that initially had competed with daguerreotypes .... the “sun print,” also known as a calotype, invented by British photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot.

O’Neal said he exhibited the print he used for the album cover in a gallery show in L.A., not long after “Déjà Vu” had come out, and Nash bought it for $350. Within months, he says, the image had faded, because the 19th century broth of chemicals he’d used to replicate the process couldn’t withstand the light.

But daguerreotypes are sturdy, making possible a show such as the Getty’s, which reflects the dawn of photography as an art form and a commercial enterprise.

Daguerre’s process called for polishing a piece of copper coated with silver to a high shine, adding a mixture of highly toxic, photosensitive chemical and popping the plate into an unwieldy box camera. The daguerreotypist was ready to shoot — but it took time for the image to cohere.

The metal plate inside the camera captured the picture, and clients bought that same piece of metal rather than a reproduction made from it. Part of the reason for the demise of daguerreotype photography was an inability to come up with a way to replicate the images on paper, although inventors tried, curator Hellman said. Each daguerreotype is therefore one of a kind, and the show includes a display of fancy frames people typically bought for them.

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At the Getty they’ll see a famous daguerreotype from the museum’s collection that shows Edgar Allan Poe looking as ghastly as some of his horrific creations shortly before his death in 1849. Nash’s contributions include pictures of a rakish-looking young man in a top hat who wears the hint of a grin, a young woman holding a guitar and one of America’s early photographic nudes, a reclining woman who posed for the unknown photographer around 1850.

Because of the cost, daguerreotypists catered to the middle and upper classes. But the new technology nevertheless helped democratize the taking of likenesses, which previously had required something even more expensive and harder to sit for — a portrait painting.

Some daguerreotype images are so vividly etched, with so much detail, that they can tire the eyes, Hellman said. “There is a sharpness you don’t even see in many digital reproductions,” she said, and to get the full effect “they require more looking than we’re used to today, a sustained look that’s hard to hold onto these days” because our eyes have become used to the unperceived blinking of electronic images on screens. “There’s a great family portrait from the Graham Nash collection that I love, the hair, the collars, the intensity of detail is so powerful.”

But Hellman also set aside part of the display to illustrate the deficiencies that made it necessary for photography to move beyond the daguerreotype in the 1860s — the inability to capture action or to find a way to reproduce the images. In attempts at street scenes, Hellman said, “you’ll see a lot of blurs or even empty faces, because figures in streets were moving too quickly to be recorded.”

Nash, who has donated photos and pre-photographic “camera lucida” pictures to the Getty and 20th century photos to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was not available for comment.

For Hellman, the show’s unsmiling portraits raise a counterintuitive question. “Now you associate smiles with photographs, but it’s kind of interesting to think about why we don’t think smiling for photographs is weird, why that’s a requirement.”

In other words, are faces in old daguerreotypes saying something more authentic about those people than our reflexive smiles for the camera say about us?

Follow me on Twitter @boehmm

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