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The Camera Opens Its Eye On America

July 2024
1min read

A special supplement prepared for American Heritage

It is on a day in the autumn of 1839, although the exact date was never recorded, that the scales fall away from the eyes of history, that the first primitive camera stares out at the American scene, that we see for the first time neither interpretation nor imagination, but the exact face of the world. Here, as Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, was “the mirror with a memory.” Almost overnight Daguerre’s invention created a big business; within ten years 71 “Daguerrean Galleries” in New York alone stood ready to give a stiff, Sunday-dressed generation a new immortality. Here on these pages is a sampling of some of the little that survives, with all its wear and imperfections, from this era of the daguerreotype and (a little later) the wet plate, when the earliest pioneer photographers discovered, for their time and ours, how America really looked.

Samuel F. B. Morse was in Paris during 1839, when Daguerre announced his discovery, and the curious American inventor soon managed to meet the Frenchman. He returned to New York and, with a copy of the apparatus, took a few pictures (none of the early ones are known to survive). Soon he opened a school to which came men of such future eminence as Albert Southworth and Mathew Brady. Then, on September 25, 1839, the “United States Gazette” of Philadelphia carried a description, from France, of the new invention. It was read by Joseph Saxton, a skilled mechanic employed at the Mint who, following instructions, improvised a camera from a cigar box and an ordinary burning glass. Placing it in a window of the Mint, he took a fuzzy daguerreotype (top, left) of a building across the street, the Central High School. It is probably the earliest surviving photograph in America. A few weeks later, quite independently, another clever Philadelphian, Robert Cornelius, took his own daguerreotype (above), and thus left the first photographic record of an American face.

We gratefully acknowledge the help of many organizations and individuals in amassing the pre-Civil War daguerreotypes, talbotypes, and various wet-plate photographs from which these pictures, each credited to its owner, were chosen. Our debt is particularly great to Mr. Beaumont Newhall, the eminent curator of the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, who has collected many of them for a book, “America in Daguerreotypes,” to be published next December.


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