Lot 113: Half Plate Daguerreotype Portrait of Two Hunters with Game and Sleeping Dog, Est. $1,500-2,500
Daguerreotypes are a reminder of a time when photography was very different from the “point-and-shoot” instant pictures of today. Now, you carry a camera in the cell phone in your back pocket everywhere you go. Then, as now, photographers were purveyors of state-of-the-art technology.
In fact, the 19th century photographers who made these long-exposure images were referred to as daguerrean artists, and quickly supplanted the portrait painters of the day. The artists’ “images,” particularly daguerreotypes, were valued for their clarity and honesty in representation.
Other than the careful arrangement of a composition, the daguerrean photographer almost never altered an image in any way, except for portraits with pink-tinted cheeks, or gold-highlighted jewelry and buttons.
Lot 103: Ninth Plate Ambrotype Portrait of Man Pouring a Milk Can, Est. $100-150
Daguerrean artists did, however, use interesting means to achieve compositional effects that would otherwise be limited by long exposure times. In the ambrotype pictured here, depicting a man pouring milk from a pitcher, the “milk” is actually a white cloth.
The long exposure times needed for daguerreotypes and other forms of early photography also cause families, soldiers, children, and laborers to look out from stiff, unsmiling poses. It could be a long and strenuous task to sit for one of these images. Yet, if you look closely, the lives and loves of the subjects become clear, and the 19th century doesn’t feel quite so distant.
As a collector, Rod MacKenzie has a sophisticated taste for images that speak to him – and now to us – emotionally, historically, and artistically. He understands well the limitations of early photography, and carefully collects images which, though mainly portraits, show us more than just what the sitter looked like.
Lot 17: Sixth Plate Ambrotype of a Boy with His Drum, Est. $600-800
There are signs of life throughout the images in his collection – children holding toys close, workmen demonstrating tools of their trade, and soldiers exuding confidence and swagger.
In addition to the portraits, MacKenzie collects images that tell stories. Among the best of these is a set of so-called “occupationals.” There are dozens of images that convey a strong sense of narrative: portraits of beautiful, elegantly dressed women give us a window into the day’s style; prosperous young couples exude airs of optimism; and men show their skill at their daily occupations. This group includes some of the rarest examples MacKenzie gathered: an architect seen in his office at a desk with his drafting tools and elevation drawings of Italianate houses on the walls behind him, a blacksmith at his anvil, a mailman, farmers, a banjo player, a string quartet, a bugle player, carpenters, buggy drivers, and firemen.
In Part II of this series, we’ll take a look at some of the highlights of this truly astounding collection. Every time I turn a page in the catalogue, I seem to find something new in one of these images that I hadn’t seen before. Which images speak most strongly to you?
On October 30, 2011, Skinner will offer the first part of the Early Photography collection of Rod MacKenzie in our American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction. Read Part I of this series to learn more about Rod MacKenzie’s sophisticated taste as a collector.
MacKenzie’s extensive knowledge of American history, particularly of the Civil War, is represented by dozens of extraordinary images of military officers and soldiers. The collection includes portraits of soldiers of all types: officers, dashing men in uniform, and heart-breaking images of very young men headed off to war. In looking at these images, we feel tantalizingly close to the battlefield and to the figures taking part in military history. Notes tucked behind case liners, such as “taken at Newbern, No. Carolina 1863 WLW Private C. E. 44th Mass,” bring us in even closer.
Another focus of the collection is photography of children being children in ways we aren’t used to seeing in 19th century photographs. One highlight is an image of a class of thirty children attending “Petersham School in Miss Laura’s Day.” We must credit the photographer for keeping the kids still during the exposure, though perhaps more of the credit is due to Miss Laura herself.
Rod found a pair of photographs showing a sweet-faced boy and a girl, probably twins, seated in the same stencil-decorated chair. He has an image of a girl holding a chalkware cat, and another of a boy with his paint-decorated drum – both subjects hold their cherished possessions close.
Lot 23: Two Sixth Plate Daguerreotype Portraits of A Boy and a Girl, probably twins, Est. $300-500
Rod made an effort to collect images of leisure activity, too, giving us even more opportunity to peer through a window into the 19th century. There’s an image of two men playing checkers housed in a Union case appropriately called “The Chess Players.” An ambrotype of four men, one wearing a military cap, holding mugs of beer, allows us to view a moment of revelry. A half-plate daguerreotype of hunters posing with game and their hunting dog represents the type of artistic composition that daguerrians often practiced. In another, a gentleman hunter with a stovepipe hat and a frock coat poses with his long gun against a painted backdrop representing a rural landscape, all housed in a case called “The Hunter.”
Lot 137: Half Plate Ambrotype Depicting a Whitehall, New York, Street Parade with Band, Est. $800-1,200
City- and townscapes, another category in the collection, are represented by some rare early photographs of mid-19th century houses including a gothic cottage, a Greek revival farmhouse, and a three-story Federal mansion. Perhaps rarest of that group is an image showing a street parade in Whitehall, New York.
Many of these sometimes haunting photographs are housed in rare thermoplastic or “Union” cases, each collectible in their own right for their unique designs. To create these cases, a specific mix of shellac, pulverized wood fibers and dyes would be heated to create a thick plastic liquid. That semi-solid was rolled out into a sheet, then individually pressed into any one of dozens of patterns which hardened when cooled. Half-plate examples of these thermoplastic cases in the collection are titled “Washington Monument, Richmond, Virginia,” “American Country Life – Summer Evening,” and “The Wedding Procession.” Others show firefighters, military trophies, and more.
In all of Skinner’s years in the business, we’ve crossed paths with and offered hundreds of early photographs. Rarely have those images equaled the quality and beauty of the pictures Rod found, or given us such insight into the people they show.