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[Detail] United States Capitol [ca 1846]

Creative Writing

This collection can be used for creative writing projects based on an imagined visit to a daguerreotype gallery. In 1840, the first commercial portrait gallery, New York's Wolcott and Johnson, used large mirrors mounted outside the studio to project as much sunlight onto the customer as possible, in a sitting that could last for as long as eight minutes. As daguerreotype technologies improved, sitting times decreased and attention to artistry increased. Photographer, Mathew Brady, achieved fame for his skill in posing his subjects, eliciting from them the desired expression, and then telling the camera operator when to take the picture. Portraitist Napoleon Sarony was known for dramatic poses made possible by an innovative posing machine with separate controls for the sitter's back, arms, head, etc. Like Brady, Sarony employed a camera operator while he elicited a pose and expression from his subject, in one case sparring with a boxer to evoke the image of a prizefighter.

Browse the collection's photographs and imagine either what it would have been like to see such images in a daguerreotype gallery or to sit for a portrait. Describe this experience as if writing about it in a letter to a friend.

  • Was this the first time that you were in a daguerreotype gallery? What is it like to see all of these portraits hanging on the walls?
  • Which people do you recognize? Why?
  • How did you pose for your portrait? What objects did you include in the picture? What clothes did you wear? Why?
  • What was the photographer and the studio like?