Illustrious Illumination

Finding a true to life glimpse of the past was not possible until the early 19th century, with the first inventions of primitive photographic methods. One that quickly became very popular in antebellum Charleston was the daguerrotype, which was essentially a method to produce a mirror-like image. Invented by Frenchman Louis Jacque Mande Daguerre in 1839, the creation of an image was a multi-step process of polishing sheets of silver-plated copper, injecting gas fumes that made the surface sensitive to light, then exposing it through an aperture to light. A person standing in front of the device would have their mirror image imbedded by then adding mercury vapor and a series of rinsing, drying and sealing to complete the process. By 1850, numerous daguerrotype studios had opened in Charleston, and the old adds are still very illuminating.

How interesting that only days after I posted this about the Daguerrotype process, a story appeared in the local newspaper about daguerrotypes – in this case a dated story about some images of African-American slaves done in Columbia in the 1850’s. But the story was not about daguerrotypes, it was the endlessly recurrent theme of racial victimization and exploitation that dominates the paper and this writer’s articles. By dragging in references to George Floyd and a presumed interpretation of what Charlestonians thought of something John C Calhoun wrote in 1837, this writer suggests a collective guilt and a sense of shocking depravity over the nude images. In fact, nude daguerrotypes were quite common in the 1850’s, and nudes as both an art form and a scientific depiction have been common since ancient times. Leonardo DaVinci was famous for his sketches of nudes, and Pablo Picasso’s heralded “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is nude art based on African themes. In Africa, the cultural tradition of depicting nude forms has a long history as well, so the 1850’s images should not be such a shock.

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