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  The research archive of Gary W. Ewer regarding the history of the daguerreotype

On this day (March 13) in the year 1891, the following article appeared as the second in a series in "The Photographic Times" (New York; pp. 125-7): ------------------------------- THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DAGUERREOTYPE. AS SEEN BY A COUNTRY "OPERATOR." II. IT will seem incredible if I say that so important an improvement as the introduction of the Voigtlander lens did not become generally known to daguerreotypists through the single State of New York until several years after that event had taken place, and after the lens was in use in the leading eastern studios. Yet such was actually the case. To-day, if anything of equal relative interest to all photographers should be made publicly known in New York and Philadelphia, hardly a week would pass before the customers of Mr. Partridge, in San Francisco, would be posted on the subject. If I am not mistaken in the date, the first lot of those lenses was imported in 1845. Then, according to rumor, a New York optician obtained one of half size and made casts of the several parts of the combination, which he copied in size and shape, and with which he proceeded to construct lenses similar in external appearance to the genuine imported article, with the exception of the inscription. Alas! The only excellence of these imitations was their external resemblance. The mount, the rack and pinion, and the glass, quantum sufficit, were there, but the soul, the genius of the inventor, was wanting! The ration of curve to index of refraction was an unknown quantity to the cunning Gothamite. The Connecticut Yankee was outdone. The redoubtable Wouter Von Twiller, who balanced the accounts of litigants by the weight of their books, had a worthy representative. But the polished brass and glass did their mischief, through the aid of enterprising dealers, which was quadrupled in efficiency by the want of periodicals; and so the knowledge of the great invention of Petzval, which was giving new life to the art, did not reach those who were most interested in possessing it, until many found themselves the sad possessors of those miserable counterfeits. Looking back over the long years I can sympathize with those unfortunate beginners in their struggle with difficulties which none escaped, who found, when too late for remedy, that their chief reliance was only a failure. Such experiences were not pleasant. Again, in other cases the failure proved to be the accident that changed the course of life into more fortunate channels. One of my most intimate friends left the camera for the legal profession, rose to the bench, where he bid fair to become eminent had not his career been cut short by the summons which none may fail to obey. I was among those who, on one of the bitterest day ever known in this latitude, in February of '73, followed him to his last resting place west of the Mississippi, where the cold earth received to her bosom all that was mortal of the brilliant scholar, the upright judge, the honest man, Chauncey N. Waterman. I trust I may be pardoned for pausing to pay, in passing, this small tribute to the memory of one who admired our art, although on a brief, unfavorable acquaintance he did not find it suited to his aims. If our roll call of honored dead has one name the less, justice and equity have one the more. Another young man of ability and attainments, after two years of toil and worry with one of those optical delusions mentioned above, out of patience and out of funds, set it aside until it should be needed for some purpose then to him unforeseen and inconceivable. He had first acquired his practical knowledge at the leading establishment in western New York, bargaining for the best tuition and the best outfit to be had and paying the price asked for the same. Relying on the advice of his instructor he was induced to accept an instrument with which, as he afterwards learned to his sorrow, it was impossible for him or any one else to produce first-rate work. This was not less than about three years after the introduction of the Voigtlander lens, and when as fine daguerreotypes (from a technical point of view) as were ever made had already been produced in the same State. Suffice it to say, this young man's success in life was not due to the excellent training and advice which he received at this reliable institution. If he is now living in affluence he does not owe it to photography. It is not the trodden highway of history that I am following; only the ups and downs in the humble by-ways of a commonplace experience, which I own it is presumptuous in me to expect will interest the general reader. If I succeed in presenting a passable, provincial picture of the art in its early days, I shall have accomplished all I hoped to do. But it becomes a convenience to the continuity and coherence of the composition that I should pose myself in the group of figures. I will come in, not as the lone fisherman, but, if you please, as the conventional camerist with head under the black cloth gathering bits from nature for the foreground and middle distance. Well, this is somewhat pretentious--more so than was intended, but I think I will let it stand. The real meaning is harmless enough. My camera and I have been inseparable for most of a long life, "And I'll not forsake it now." Nothing was more natural than that I should take to it. Had an early taste for drawing and mechanical contrivance. My first choice of a trade was to be a printer, and think that came from the picture of "An old Man who found a rude Boy in one of his Trees stealing Apples," and other like gems of art dear to the untutored juvenile eye. My grandmother, probably thinking to test the strength of my predilection, jestingly spoke of the black fingers of printers, little dreaming of the prophetic import of her words in the pursuit which her youthful scion was to follow. Doubtless similar natural tendencies in thousands of others have operated to fill the ranks of photography with those who love the art for its own sake. A friend of mine learned the art while acting as laboratory assistant for Professor Avery, then of Hamilton College at Clinton, N.Y. This was in 1846. He made my first likeness on a silver plate, a copy of which he sent me a year ago from South Carolina, where he is now living. It is a curiosity, none of my friends being able to discover hardly any resemblance to the alleged original. He obtained a quarter size outfit and started in a southerly direction to seek his fortune. Was in the Confederacy during the war, and being compelled to join the Southern army his knowledge of chemistry procured him a position in the medical department, and saved him from the bullets of General Sherman's soldiers. My friend Schorb's success was the last straw. When he left with his modest outfit I could no longer resist the temptation to enlist under the (photographic) black flag, and accordingly applied to the professor for the requisite preparatory training. It was then that I was furnished with the first sample of literature pertaining to the art that I had seen, which was in the handwriting of the professor and in the form of an agreement by and between the parties of the first and second part, to the effect that in consideration of fifty dollars ($50) in hand paid by the party of the second part, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, the said party of the first part agrees to teach the said party of the second part the art of making daguerreotypes by the process known as the Mayall process, etc. The process referred to was named after J. E. Mayall, then of Philadelphia, since of London, where he became eminent as a daguerreotypist and photographer. How much of the process was original with him I never knew, but it probably embodied as complete and perfect a system of manipulation for producing daguerreotypes as was known at that time (1847), and I think it was never afterwards materially improved upon. W. H. Sherman. (To be continued.) Note.--There is nothing connected with this subject with which I am more familiar than the fact that Goddard discovered the use of bromine as an accelerator, and that Fizeau discovered the gilding process, and yet by an unaccountable mistake I spoke in my last chapter of the latter as the discoverer of the use of bromine. W. H. S. (The first of the series appeared on Jan 20, 1891 and was posted to DagNews on 3-9-97. The third of the series appears on April 17, 1891) -------------------------------------------------------------- 03-13-97

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