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Friday, February 19, 2010

Albert Sands Southworth - Photographer

(A typical "tintype" of the period where a photographic image is developed on a thin tin plate. Not believed to be Southworth's photo - see note at bottom.)

People today take photos with their cell phones. Constantly. There was a time, however, when taking a photo was a much slower process. Much slower. What it lacked in convenience, it made up for in creating an intimate and thoughtful record of a world that may not have moved as fast, but would disappear all the same.

In the late 1840s, it was called daguerreotype, and a shopkeeper in the village of Cabotville (see this previous post on the mills girls of Cabotville in Chicopee, Mass., also this post on the Ames Manufacturing Company), was destined to make an enormous contribution to the future of photography.

Albert Sands Southworth was born in West Fairlee, Vermont, 1811. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and after a short stint at teaching, came to Cabotville to open a drug store in 1839.

In “The Spirit of Fact - The Dauguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes, 1843-1862” by Robert A. Sobieszek and Odette M. Appel (David R. Godine, Boston, 1976) a book on the partnership of Southworth and Hawes, the authors quote from Southworth’s letters to his sister Nancy about his life in Cabotville and his “little office.”

Cabotville was still the northernmost village of Springfield at the time (until its separation in 1848 to form the Town of Chicopee), fairly quiet except for the stirrings of its new industrial life.

Southworth is described as adventurous, and ambitious. Cabotville must have been too quiet for the outgoing young man of 28, or the daily occupation of his drug store too dull, for he reported to his sister of his restlessness.

But, something was on the horizon that would change his life.

In the year Southworth came to Cabotville, a French scenic painter and physicist named Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre made a new invention public at the Academy of Sciences in France. It was a daguerreotype, a photograph produced on a silver-coated copper plate treated with iodine vapor.

In 1840, a series of lectures was given by Francois Gouraud in Boston, Providence, and New York. Gouraud was a student of Daguerre’s, and he represented the company licensed to sell Daguerre’s camera and manual.

Southworth was interested. Through these lectures, he discovered his future occupation. He traveled to New York to visit Joseph Pennell, his former roommate at Phillips Academy to discuss daguerreotype and the telegraph. Southworth studied under Morse in his New York studio, after which he and his friend Pennell returned to Cabotville to begin further experiments in daguerreotype.

They began their partnership in this new field with a capital of less than $50, and their new venture would prove quite costly. But, there was a market. Once photography became known to the public, everyone wanted his daguerreotype taken.

In those very early days, having your picture taken was exciting, and very fashionable, but a little like going to the dentist. Because the process of reflecting light onto a sensitive chemical plate was still crude, the shutter had to remain open for long periods of time. The sitter was posed against a plain background, using natural light and often taken outdoors.

It took anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes of sitting or standing absolutely still.

The subject's eyes often remained closed, because of the torture of staring without blinking. Absolutely no movement.

However, for the first time in history, average people could keep a likeness of themselves or their loves ones looking completely realistic. In sentimental Victorian days, this went over big.

Southworth, enthusiastic about his new trade, constantly experimented to improve the quality of his work. He was the first to use reflective lenses in his cameras, made for him by a Southwick, Mass. manufacturer. He later invented the Grand Parlor Stereoscope or stereopticon, without which no mid-19th century home was complete. Ancient View Master to you Baby Boomers.

In the spring of 1941, Southworth left Cabotville for Boston and the prominent figures he would photograph with his new partner, Josiah Johnson Hawes. He would photograph Daniel Webster, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, educator Horace Mann, and popular singer Jenny Lind, and President Franklin Pierce, among others.

Nearly ten years after he had arrived in Cabotville, three daguerreotypists were operating in that town within a few blocks of each other.

Now the power of photography is in everyone’s hands. Or phones.

NOTE: The above tintypes are not, to my knowledge, by Albert Southworth, only used for examples of the style of photography of the day. For more on Southworth, have a look at his photos on this website of the American Museum of Photography.


John Hayes said...

Wonderful post, & I really enjoyed looking at Southworth's work--& reading his quotes--on the page you linked to.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, John. Just another case of a Vermont boy making good.

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