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Family Silver

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Unknown Maker: The Art of the American Daguerreotype

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through September 28

Historically considered the first medium of the masses, the daguerreotype was relatively cheap and easy to produce, bringing family portraiture within reach of the middle and lower classes. "Unknown Maker: The Art of the American Daguerreotype" captures these portraits and more, offering a wide range of subjects and treatments in 160 daguerreotypes from the 1840s and '50s, culled from the Hallmark Photographic Collection. The medium's novelty and unfamiliarity are often reflected in the subjects' expressions: stiff and unsmiling, they seem ill at ease or appear to be striving for dignity. More intriguing than the occasional humor or icy creepiness, however, is the way the exhibition illuminates 19th-century modes of representation, particularly of the self. An unusually intimate installation emphasizes that these objects were cherished: presented in deep cases under relatively low light, the pictures are displayed in their original diptych frames, backed with velvet and worn around the edges.

The daguerreotype, invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, debuted in 1839 and by the mid-1840s was widely used commercially, particularly in the United States. The process itself sounds distinctly alchemical: a copper plate is coated with a layer of light-sensitive silver, which is then exposed and developed with the fumes of heated mercury and toned with a solution of gold chloride (shuddering OSHA officials come to mind). In essence a daguerreotype contains its own negative; it can't be reproduced, and its level of detail is remarkable. The images don't break down upon close viewing--as viewers here are able to see with the help of a magnifier mounted on one of the cases. They're also highly reflective, which makes them glow with a silver sheen. Luminous and mutable, daguerreotypes require a certain kind of engaged seeing since the light and the beholder's point of view can make them seem to dissolve and rematerialize.

The daguerreotypes in "Unknown Maker" are divided into fairly predictable categories, and this curatorial flat-footedness is unnecessarily limiting to some of the more inventive representations. There are, among others, sections labeled "Occupationals," "Children," "Accidents," "Objects," and "Mysteries." These tidy categories usually contain exactly what one might expect: "Identities" includes daguerreotypes of Native Americans, of the men of a military family posed with their servant sitting at their knees, and of Frederick Douglass. "Occultism" offers portraits of a phrenologist, a mesmerist and his subject, and a man posed inexplicably with a pile of skulls.

The images that truly captivate, though, are those that are difficult to identify or categorize. For example, one of the subjects in Two Girls exhibits an unchildlike sensuality, her dress falling off her shoulders--she seems straight out of a Sally Mann shoot. The large "Occupationals" section gives us a catalog of 19th-century workers (window maker, cigar maker, blacksmith, pugilist, delivery boy, mountain man) posing with the tools of their trade (window frame, tobacco leaves, anvil, fists, parcel, rifle). Some of the portraits in this section beg for more explanation: a grizzled black man pictured with a ball of string, a chiropodist shown working on a foot sticking roughly into the frame. Such images offer tantalizing glimpses of an earlier approach to self-definition, one that the daguerreotypes prove existed but that the exhibition materials fail to expand on. Did Americans identify more closely with their jobs than we do today, as these images suggest?

"Unknown Maker" also includes but leaves unexplored some of the more avant-garde representational practices. In the section devoted to nonstandard portraiture is a daguerreotype of a farm family of eight. Rather than loosely arranging its members in a studio by height or significance within the family, the photographer chose to represent them outdoors on their farm. Further, the group is arranged in three small clusters at the edges of the frame, encircling the empty space at the compositional center. Suggesting a familiarity with the broad blankness of Turner's landscapes and predating the impressionist impulse to put activity around rather than in the middle of the frame, this daguerreotype is startling in its violation of portraiture as it was then known.

The photographic "accidents"--what we might today call outtakes--are also compositionally odd. Most are images of children being propped up or steadied by disembodied hands and arms, presumably belonging to their parents; these appendages thrusting into the frames create vectors of surprising power. In The Human Head Clamp a mother standing behind her baby holds its head straight. The mother's torso and arms are clearly visible, but the frame cleanly decapitates her, lending the image a wry and gruesome quality.

One learns a great deal about the craze that swept the nation over these two decades, leading mothers to drag their children into studios and spurring men to take pictures of themselves playing cards and lifting glasses--or, in one particularly enigmatic image, displaying their watches. The pictures are also intrinsically beautiful and evocative, calling into question our belief that an image can capture a person, whether it's a postmortem shot of an infant posed as if he were comfortably sleeping or a picture of a woman sitting stolidly with a letter whose contents will forever remain a mystery. In a way the exhibition makes one nostalgic for such powerful, singular physical tokens of selfhood: the modern proliferation of snapshots has perhaps devalued our images of loved ones. In one of the more chilling and touching displays, a tiny photo of a woman has been woven into a bracelet made of human hair, as if even this precious photo were somehow not enough.

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