More than a century and a half after the invention of photography, the revolutionary nature of these earliest daguerreotype images continue to shock us. Photographs have the uncanny ability to represent something that "really was" long after it is no more. In a way, these images defy time and death, returning us to a vision of the past that we thought was forever entombed, accesible only through the veils of literature, painting, and memory.
This book and the accompanying exhibition offer a glimpse into a single generation of American life, from the first daguerreotypes made after the process was developed in 1839 until it was replaced by other techniques around the time of the Civil War. Only a few short years were required to turn all visual conventions of representation upside down. Almost as soon as the process was introduced, daguerreotypists began flouting artistic dictates about composition and cropping, posing and perspective.
Since 1839, the industrial revolution and, more recently, the information revolution have brought almost constant change, but few inventions have done as much as the daguerreotype to propel us into a new universe of perception. In this book, John Wood, professor of English and director of the creative writing program at McNeese State University, Louisiana, discusses the literature of the daguerreotype and some of the major figures who wrote about it. The essay by Merry Foresta , photography curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and coordinator of the accompanying exhibition, delves deeply into the subtleties and novelties of the daguerreotype as an agent of modernizing vision.
The book also includes a selection of key early texts by practitioners and champions of the new medium, which helps us pinpoint the stages of transformation and capture the era's intense interest in these groundbreaking images.
There is a satisfying symmetry in presenting a book on daguerreotypes as we plan for a CD-ROM to disseminate the museum's collection more widely. It would be possible to argue that the printing press, photographic processes, and electronic information technologies have been the three most significant inventions of the modern age. By highlighting the crucial technological advances introduced by photography, as well as the social transformations it helped create, this book brings us closer to understanding both our past and our present.