picturing the past

In Inspiration, Portraiture

My husband Dan and I attended a wonderful talk a few weeks ago at the Cahoon Museum of American Art in conjunction with their exhibit Through the Looking Glass: Daguerreotype Masterworks from the Dawn of Photography. The talk by antiques and photography expert Alan Granby gave us a new appreciation for the amazing history of photography starting with the daguerreotype. I won’t try to relate all that I learned during his talk, but I was excited to get home afterwards and take a look at my family daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes, and see if I could use the information he gave us to learn more about my family photos.

As you know from previous posts, I have a keen interest in vernacular and antique photography, particularly the stories the images tell of life in an earlier time. I have a collection of very early daguerreotype and other photographs of members of both sides of my family, and have appreciated them while not knowing much about how they were taken.

But Alan’s talk at the Cahoon Museum gave me insight into my collection, and Alan was willing to look at my photographs and assess their quality. Daguerreotype images were made in various sizes, with some being rarer than others. My family’s photos include great examples of larger, high quality images by known photographers or studios, but also unusual tiny sizes that are also rare.

I feel an even greater closeness to my ancestors now that I understand how they were photographed, what they might have been able to afford, and how they wanted to be remembered.

Daguerreotypes are very hard to photograph, since they have a mirror finish and reflect the camera or iPhone taking them. Some of these images don’t do justice to the originals, but give a glimpse back in time.

My great-great-great grandfather Francis Holmes Abbot
My great-great grandfather Thomas Wade Abbot as a young man
My great-great grandmother Helen Tracey Adams, as a young girl
Helen Tracey Adams Abbot with one of her sons
Helen’s son Francis circa 1862, age 8, dressed as a Civil War soldier
My great-grandmother Isabella Esther McCormick
My great-great grandparents Charles and Arvilla Dana
Their children. I believe they are my great-grandmother Sara, her sister Abby, and her brother Israel

Though the members of the two sides of my family were living and working during the 1850s-60s, you can see that they were living very different lives. My Abbot ancestors lived in New York City and were merchants, while my Dana family members lived in rural Vermont, where Charles was a judge. Life was harder in Vermont, and their faces show the difference.

Do you have antique photographs like these in your family archives? We would love to hear about them. Post a link in the comments so that we can appreciate your family history.

See you soon. xo

–lucy

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