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

The following article appeared in the March issue of "The Photographic and Fine-Art Journal" Vol. 8, No. 3 (March 1855) pg. 80. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - For the Photographic and Fine Art Journal. T A K I N G P O R T R A I T S A F T E R D E A T H . BY N. G. BURGESS. The occupation of the Daguerrean Artist necessarily brings him in contact with the most endearing feelings of the human heart, more especially is this true when called upon to copy the "human face divine" "After life's fitful fever is o'er." How often has he been called upon to attend at the house of mourning to copy that face who, when in life was so dear to the living friends, and with what doubt and hesitation has he essayed the task. The only object of a portrait of the deceased can be to retain a fac-simile of the outline of the face to assist the painter in the delineation of the portrait, and in this particular it has been found of essential service. Having considerable experience in this branch of the art, I will transcribe my method for the benefit of the readers of the Journal. I have succeeded much better when I conveyed all my apparatus to the house of the deceased, except the cleaning blocks. I therefore have a portable one arranged so as to place the whole in a box or basket, which includes the camera and stand, coating boxes, mercury bah and buff. I clean several plates, say eight or ten, and buff them ready for coating, and place them in a plate box well cleaned, and free from dust, covering over the plates with a piece of tissue paper, and then putting the cover of the box tightly over the whole. Cover the box also with black cloth. The plates should be retouched with the buff slightly before coating, to be absolutely sure that all the dust is removed from the surface. Many operators coat their plates before leaving their rooms, and succeed in producing portraits. But generally, with all their care, there will be those interminable black spots on the surface-- owing to the small particles of dust. I have therefore always avoided them whenever I coated the plates at the house of the deceased. A small closet room can easily be found in the house, and if not, by closing the blinds, a corner of the room will suffice. A north light is the best exposure of course. But when that cannot be procured, take any window with a fair exposure, free from the direct rays of the sun. If the portrait of an infant is to be taken, it may be placed in the mother's lap, and taken in the usual manner by a side light representing sleep. If it is an older child, it can be placed upon the table, with the head toward the light, slightly raised, and diagonally with the window, with the feet brought more towards the middle of the window. A common woollen blanket may be used as a back ground, which can be held behind the body by two assistants. A sheet can be used also for a reflector, which may also be held by assistants, or fastened to the wall. The table or bed as the case may be, must be so arranged that the light will fall down the face, and the shadows appear below the nose and eye brows. As much of the sky-light effect as possible must be obtained, which can be done by darkening the lower portion of the window with some dark cloth. Bring the camera as near the wall as possible. Increase the light by opening the upper portion of the window when it is practicable. Now by one experiment the light can be tried, and very soon a good picture produced. Should the body be in the coffin, it still can be taken, though not quite so conveniently, nor with so good results. The coffin must be placed near the window, and the head placed in the same position as upon the table. It is of considerable importance that the coffin should not appear in the picture, and it may be covered around the edges by means of a piece of colored cloth, a shawl, or any drapery that will conceal it from view. By making three or four trials, a skilful artist can procure a faithful likeness of the deceased, which becomes valuable to the friends of the same if no other had been procured when in life. All likenesses taken after death will of course only resemble the inanimate body, nor will there appear in the portrait anything like life itself, except indeed the sleeping infant, on whose face the playful smile of innocence sometimes steals even after death. This may be and is oftimes transferred to the silver plate. However, all the portraits taken in this manner, will be changed from what they would be if taken in life--all will be changed to the sombre hue of death. How true it is, that it is too late to catch the living form and face of our dear friends, and well illustrates the necessity of procuring those more than life-like resemblances of our friends, ere it is too late--ere the hand of death has snatched away those we prize so dearly on earth. -------------------------------------------------------------- 03-13-98

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