CAMBRIDGE — In his novel “The House of Seven Gables,” Nathaniel Hawthorne made a daguerreotypist the embodiment of the modern age. It was a sensible choice for 1851. Daguerreotypes, the first type of photograph, had been invented a scant dozen years before. They were as modern as modern could be, right down to the shininess of the silver-plated copper on which the image was exposed. Knowledge of that up-to-the-minute past makes the way daguerreotypes now look — as antique as an antimacassar covering a corset draped across a spittoon — all the more affecting as an evocation of time’s passage. Every photographic image is about the past. A daguerreotype doesn’t just state that pastness. A daguerreotype proclaims it.
Daguerreotypes originated in France, named for their inventor, Louis Daguerre. Yet as “Daguerre’s American Legacy: Photographic Portraits (1840-1900) From the Wm. B. Becker Collection” amply demonstrates, the United States very quickly made them its own. The show runs at the MIT Museum through Jan. 4.
The daguerreotype process was never patented. This insured that it soon spread to other countries. Then, as now, proprietary technology is its own speed bump. Two factors especially suited the daguerreotype to the United States (first introduced here in 1840). Where once portraits had been restricted to the rich and aristocratic, the daguerreotype made them available to anyone who could afford the relatively small expense. The daguerreotype represented a democratization of culture. What could be more American than that? Second, the greater degree of affluence in the United States meant that much of the population could pay for a sitting — or several. Within a decade, there were thousands of daguerreotypists in the United States. By 1853, they were taking 3 million daguerreotypes a year.
The prevalence of daguerreotypes in US households made them no less prized by owners. So many of the daguerreotypes in “Daguerre’s American Legacy” are housed in handsome metal cases, with velvet-lined interiors, and elegantly curved mattes or borders. They’re displayed like Victorian reliquaries, with every man a saint and and every family holy. Their small scale makes them seem all the more precious. Daguerreotypes, being irreproducible, can’t be blown up in size as images produced by other photographic processes can. That scale also imparts a sense of intimacy that makes the images all the more affecting.
There are more than 250 items in the show. Besides daguerrotypes, there are tintypes (a close photographic cousin), ambrotypes, and albumen prints (both of them products of slightly later processes). The show includes related items: cameras, lenses, handbills, even a storage box. One gets a sense of cultural context, of how large early photography loomed in the lives of average Americans.
Average is an important word, as is anonymous. Don’t expect to find presidents and senators and men of letters in “Daguerre’s American Legacy.” The vast preponderance of sitters are unknown — another aspect of democratization. Who was the Lincolnesque-looking individual identified as “Close-up of a Man With Piercing Eyes”? We don’t know, other than that he certainly wasn’t Lincoln. Nor does th is anonymity matter. With the help of Daguerre’s process these sitters have done something that only the most famous have done, defeat time.
The photographers are mostly anonymous, too, though not always. There are examples in the show of work from Boston’s Southworth & Hawes, perhaps the most artistically distinguished of pre-Civil War American photographers, and the studio of Mathew Brady. But otherwise what we see is the product of a visual climate, and all the more valuable for that fact. The formal limitations of the daguerrotype make the variety of content on display here all the more striking — and valuable. To call “Daguerre’s American Legacy” a visual census would be far too sweeping, but not altogether inaccurate. The show gives a sense of just how large and how varied an increasingly large and varied country was becoming.
There are also moments when the images can seem nearly as modern now as they once did then. The subject of Geo. H. Dresser’s albumen print “Native American With Blonde Baby” is just what it says it is. What the title doesn’t express is how effortlessly the smile on the woman’s face subverts any idea that America isn’t or can’t or shouldn’t be multicultural. As for the tintype “Sit!” (the title being a canine-directed command), it suggests that William Wegman’s great-grandfather knew how to operate a camera. Either that, or people who believe in reincarnation aren’t barking up the wrong tree.