Inventing American Photography :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Shannon Perich, Curator, National Museum of American History

Draper exposure scale. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

During the second week of November last year, the National Museum of American History hosted six lectures under the theme Inventing American Photography, 1835-1860. The dynamic mix of speakers and topics enlightened and intellectually stimulated the audience, and spurred the organizers to expand the project to a broader pan-institutional research and programming effort. The overall goal of presenting the history of daguerreotypes in a mixed context of technology, science, culture, politics, manufacturing, and art was extremely well-received.

Portrait of Samuel F. B. Morse with daguerreotype camera. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Spilling out of the collections and research based in the Photographic History Collection, the concept of “inventing” American photography includes technological innovations, as one might expect, but also the development of manufacturing, studio businesses, research, aesthetics, and visual culture. In addition to the collections- and archives-based research, the Smithsonian’s material conservation scientists are using new imaging techniques to better understand the surfaces and construction of historical daguerreotypes in order to enhance contemporary preservation practices.  

The Lemelson Center’s approach to studying places of invention has informed the Inventing American Photography team’s thinking. The Center’s intellectual model of considering the variables and conditions of a community at a particular moment and locale has offered a research approach that works equally well for a thematic topic like photography. In fact, some of the research for Inventing American Photography dovetails with the Center’s own research about the importance of synergy among creative thinkers.

Telescope eyepieces made by Henry Fitz. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

For example, Professors Greg Wickliff and Sarah Kate Gillespie (both former Lemelson fellows) presented their research on Dr. John W. Draper and Samuel F. B. Morse, respectively. Both drew connections to the circles of scientists, lens makers, and artists in New York City and Europe in the 1830s that facilitated experimentation. Hanako Murata, a photography conservator, detailed her research on the Henry Fitz Jr. daguerreotype at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Using some of Ftiz's apparatus in the Museum's collection, NMAH's physical sciences curator Steve Turner enhanced and expanded Murata's specific findings. He discussed Fitz’s optical lens production and tools to contextualize the significance of Fitz’s role in the history of photography and show the broader intersection with Draper and Morse’s work. These four lectures that simultaneously drilled down deep and cast a broad net across a particular moment in time were further contextualized by Professor Kelly Wright, who discussed the manufacture and use of color during an era in which the extant photographic artifacts are mostly monochromatic. French professor of American studies François Brunet wrapped up the set of lectures with his own visual culture research, extending the relationship between inventing American photography and the development of the European history of photography.

Image: Portrait of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Moving ahead, the Inventing American Photography team looks forward to bringing a contemporary daguerreotypist and researcher to the Smithsonian this spring, conducting a count of daguerreotypes at the National Museum of American History, continuing to identify intersecting research on daguerreotype manufacturing and patent models, and expanding the Understanding Early Photography website.

From Prototype, February 2012.

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