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Paper Promises: Early American Photography, curated by Mazie M. Harris, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, offered fascinating insight into the little-known history of early paper photography in the United States. Although the processes for producing metal daguerreotypes and paper photographs were introduced simultaneously in America, negative-positive paper photography was slow to catch on, despite the ostensible benefits of its reproducibility. Harris accounts for this fact in the financial history of the antebellum period arguing that the medium’s feared potential to create counterfeit currency stymied its adoption in the United States. After Andrew Jackson dismantled the federal banking system in the 1830s, the government no longer produced a single currency, prompting individual banks to print their own money. Counterfeiting became rampant—by some estimates, forgery hovered around 40 percent—and banknotes were derisively called “paper promises” to denote their worthlessness compared to specie. Harris foregrounds the impact of this financial anxiety on the perception of paper photography in America. She goes on to explore the work of photographic pioneers who experimented with the medium in the 1850s and the ways that territorial expansion and the Civil War ultimately increased demand for reproducible photography. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue consider how paper photography not only pictured the burgeoning nation but became a vehicle for both shaping and disseminating conceptions of national identity.
The exhibition featured dozens of rarely exhibited salted paper prints and paper negatives as well as examples of other early photographic techniques, such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, albumen silver prints, and more obscure formats, like the pannotype and ivorytype. Handsomely installed in low-lit galleries, many of the most sensitive photographs were draped with protective covers, and innovative LED backlit displays facilitated the presentation of paper negatives. Additionally, two sets of stereoscopes allow visitors to experience a quintessentially nineteenth-century form of photographic viewership. Although the photographs on view are primarily drawn from the Getty’s collection, the exhibition benefits from many prominent loans, including those from the New-York Historical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and National Portrait Gallery.
Paper Promises spanned four distinct rooms, each radiated from an open central gallery, and was organized in a loosely chronological, thematic sequence. Admittedly, the exhibition’s layout was slightly confusing at times, but it reflected Harris’s directive to embrace the essential messiness of a period in which the medium’s conventions were not set. Harris resisted the retrospective urge to characterize the history of early American photography as a tidy, evolutionary trajectory.
The exhibition’s first gallery, adjacent to the title wall, surveys the multiplicity of photographic processes in use in antebellum America, ranging from those that created unique images on metal or glass to paper photographs produced from paper or glass negatives. This section does an excellent job of outlining photographic techniques that can be arcane for nonspecialists as well as introducing a series of notable early practitioners. The photos by the Langenheim Brothers of Philadelphia, who were among the earliest adopters of negative-positive photography and the first producers of stereographs in the United States, were a particular standout. Through their work, and that of the other Americans who first recognized the potential of paper photography, this gallery presented the challenges and opportunities of new photographic technologies and documented practitioners’ growing awareness of the medium’s applications for portraiture, scientific illustration, tourism, historic preservation, and coverage of current events.
The next gallery focused specifically on photographic portraiture. While unique portraits on metal and glass, like their painted predecessors, were typically distributed among families and tight-knit communities, reproducible paper photography could be shared more widely and allowed for greater manipulation. Photographic portraits of sculptor Harriet Hosmer, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrate how nineteenth-century celebrities capitalized on new opportunities for public self-representation, likewise retouched or hand-inscribed portraits of anonymous sitters reveal private citizens’ similar engagement with the new possibilities of the medium. Among the most interesting applications of photographic paper portraiture presented in this gallery was an 1852 Harvard College yearbook, commissioned by the university from Boston photographer John Adams Whipple. As noted in the accompanying label, this now-familiar format was a novelty at the time and presages Mark Zuckerberg’s invention over 150 years later.
Emerging into the central gallery, the photographs in the next section of the exhibition illustrated the ways that paper photography contributed to crucial nineteenth-century debates, and thus helped to shape the image of the nation. Photographs of Native American and Japanese delegations to Washington, DC, hang alongside those created by the artist and patent examiner Titian Ramsey Peale II, conflating debates over national and international treaty negotiations with photographers’ struggle over intellectual property rights. These ideas are more fully realized in the exhibition’s catalogue, which consists of five essays, three by Harris and two by contributors Christine Hult-Lewis and Matthew Fox-Amato. This gallery also contains examples of counterfeit currency created with paper photography, which are among the most fascinating objects in the show. Having read Harris’s catalogue prior to viewing the exhibition, I was surprised that the show’s brilliant hook (i.e., the fraught relationship between early paper photography and paper currency) was not more prominently featured at the outset. Nonetheless, these works, which themselves provoked contentious period debate, accorded thematically with the others in this gallery.
The next room featured images related to westward expansion, underscoring the way that paper photography both encouraged and facilitated settlement. Touristic images, like George Fardon’s Panorama of San Francisco (1855–56) powerfully shaped easterners’ perceptions of the rapidly expanding city, encouraging westward migration. Interestingly, paper photography was also used by Californians to negotiate land claims. As discussed in Hult-Lewis’s insightful essay, Carleton Watkins was commissioned to create photographs of several disputed California properties that were among the earliest photographs submitted as evidence in a court of law.
The remainder of the exhibition focused on photography of the Civil War and its aftermath and included photographs by Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and George N. Barnard, which have become icons of the era. Although this material was the most familiar in the show, the exhibition and catalogue manage to provide a new perspective on a well-trodden subject. Virtually unknown objects, such as a collection of Cumberland University Class Albums (1859–62), which were annotated within a few years of their creation to record the deaths of alumni, demonstrate paper photography’s intimate relationship to wartime memory. Moreover, Fox-Amato’s corresponding essay, which considers stereographic plantation views produced by Charleston photographers James M. Osborn and Frederick E. Durbec on the eve of the Civil War, illuminates a set of previously unstudied images and draws important conclusions about the construction of pro-slavery visual culture.
The exhibition’s central gallery adjoined a complementary show entitled Cut! Paper Play in Contemporary Photography, which features the work of six contemporary photographers who utilize paper as a central part of their practice. This was one of several instances throughout the exhibition and catalogue where one is encouraged to compare the content of Paper Promises to the present moment, which was one of the exhibition’s many strengths. The themes set forth by Paper Promises are eminently relevant today as photographic materiality has undergone yet another transformation—the digital revolution—and we once again experience anxiety about the medium’s potential for manipulation, misuse, and its impact on our public and political discourse. As such, this visually and conceptually compelling exhibition resonates on multiple levels and offers a significant contribution to the scholarship on early American photography.
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, CUNY Graduate Center
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