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MIT Museum exhibit features 100 early photographic portraits

"Daguerre’s American Legacy: Photographic Portraits (1840-1900)," from the Wm. B. Becker Collection, is on view in Kurtz Gallery for Photography from April 18 to Jan. 4, 2015.
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Photography is the closest thing we have to a time machine — and a new exhibition at the MIT Museum sends visitors traveling all the way back to the 1840s and 1850s, when the very first photographic portraits were made. Produced on mirrorlike pieces of silver-plated copper, 100 of these one-of-a-kind images, called “daguerreotypes,” are presented at the MIT Museum’s Kurtz Gallery for Photography in "Daguerre’s American Legacy: Photographic Portraits (1840-1900) from the Wm. B. Becker Collection."

Included are photographs of abolitionists and slaves, stalwart firemen and flirts with fans, brick-makers and literary women, cross-dressers, and chicken-pluckers. Highlights include superb examples from America’s first masters of photography — Southworth & Hawes of Boston, Jeremiah Gurney of New York, and Marcus A. Root of Philadelphia — as well as outstanding works by obscure and unknown artists. The Kurtz Gallery, devoted to continuing MIT’s rich legacy of photography, is the first U.S. venue for this exhibition.

The first photographic portraits were objects of wonder. From tentative beginnings in 1840, the practice of capturing a person’s image with a camera became an profitable industry, as well as a means of artistic expression. Photography at that time, invented by the French painter, showman and experimenter Louis Daguerre, was a transformative technology that impacted Americans in all walks of life. These early portraits reveal much about 19th-century society, including the importance of work and family life, affinity groups, and leisure.

The exhibition presents daguerreotypes and other 19th-century photographs, including ambrotypes, tintypes, and paper prints. All of the photographs are on loan from Wm. B. Becker of Michigan, a noted collector of early photography. Visitors will be introduced to different approaches to 19th-century photography, including recognizing and interpreting codes in early portraits and understanding how sitters and photographers collaborated to create images that project the subject’s identity or personality.

From its origins in recording the unadorned appearance of the human face, American photography evolved into a means of communicating personal attributes, beyond documentary into the fiction: By the end of the century, people were shown conversing with ghosts, struggling through faux blizzards created in the studio, even confronting their spirit doubles. Rare examples of these “photographic fictions” are included in MIT’s exhibition.

The exhibition was curated by Wm. B. Becker, Francois Brunet, and Gary Van Zante. It has been adapted and expanded from the exhibition "Le portrait daguerrien en Amérique: visages de la collection Wm. B. Becker" (2013), which was curated for the Maison Daguerre, Bry-sur-Marne, and Musée Gatien Bonnet, Lagny-sur-Marne by Brunet and Margaret Calvarin, in collaboration with Wm. B. Becker.

Van Zante will lead a tour of the exhibition on April 22, from 3 to 4 p.m. Tickets are available a half-hour before the start of the tour on a first-come, first-served basis. The tour is limited to 25 participants — teens and adults only.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 327-page book (published by Mare & Martin of Paris) that's available in the MIT Museum Store.

More information about the MIT Museum is at

Press Mentions

Boston Globe

Boston Globe reporter Mark Feeney reports on “Daguerre’s American Legacy: Photographic Portraits (1840-1900) From the Wm. B. Becker Collection,” which is on display at the MIT Museum through January 4.

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