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Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Daguerreotype Lives

By Oren Grad

I've had daguerreotypes on my mind, ever since visiting the Southworth and Hawes exhibition.

The interesting thing about photographic processes that are superseded in the mass market by newer technology is that they don't necessarily go away. They may hang on for a while in a long, slow decline, or they may be eclipsed almost entirely but reappear later as a younger generation rediscovers them and finds virtue in their special attributes.

So it is with the menagerie of so-called "alternative processes." Their use now always a matter of choice rather than of necessity, they appeal especially to people who enjoy craft for its own sake, who savor the picture as a physical object, and who'd rather cradle an exquisite jewel in the hand than hang a big, bold poster-print on the wall.

Even the daguerreotype lives on, championed by a new generation of enthusiastic practitioners. It's a challenging craft, not for the lazy or impatient. The toxicity of the classical process, based on development over mercury vapors, requires careful safety precautions and scares off many; fortunately, the Becquerel process offers a safer alternative. But for daguerreotype aficionados, the demands of the medium are part of its charm.

Jason Greenberg Motamedi, an anthropologist by training and profession who is also a rising young star within the community of daguerreotypists, teaches an introductory workshop on the process. I've known Jason for some time through his thoughtful discussion-board postings on classic lenses and through private correspondence we've had on matters optical. When I saw an announcement that one of his workshops for this year still had some openings, I asked if he would share with T.O.P. his thoughts on the medium. Here's what he wrote:

Daguerreotypes are mysterious and beautiful. Their images—positive, negative and mirror at the same time—have an amazing sense of depth and delicacy. The process, although difficult, toxic, and expensive, is highly enjoyable and meditative, combining the skills of jeweler, chemist, photographer and bookbinder. Yet the most intriguing aspect of the Daguerreotype for me is its "presence", or to make up a word, its thing-ness. This seems particularly important in the age of digital reproduction. A Daguerreotype, unlike a screen image and even the most perfect silver, platinum, or albumen print, is foremost a three-dimensional object. Made of copper, silver, and glass, they are surprisingly heavy, yet seem to fit perfectly in the palm of a hand. Finally, daguerreotypes are all flawed. Producing a perfect blemish-free image is near impossible. I find something comforting in being forced to leave much of my art to chance.

Jason offers his workshop through the Peters Valley Craft Center (go here and scroll down for the workshop description) and also through the Center for Alternative and Historic Processes (scroll down from here for workshop listing). The CFAAHP workshop is full for this year, but the Peters Valley session still has openings.

Jason has an intriguing website as well. More of a proto-website, really; demands of work and family forced him to set aside further development after the site's launch a few years ago. However, Jason tells me that he's planning an update for this summer. You can also find a selection of work by Jason and other contemporary daguerreotypists here.

Posted by OREN GRAD


Anonymous Howard Grill said...

Anyone interested in the history of photography and the various photographic processes should take a listen to Jeff Curto's superb History Of Photography college course and podcast. It is truly an excellent production. You can subscribe via iTunes or here:

5:11 PM  
Blogger Pancho said...

About one year ago I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Robert Shlaer, of Santa Fe, a brilliant daguerreotype artist who has recreated John Charles Fremonts last expedition into the west. Fremont had taken a photographer along on his trek who recorded some of the first scenes of the region. The originals were lost in a fire in the 1860's and Mr. Shlaer has reproduced the collection in new daguerreotypes taken from the original vantage points. Amazing work.
Shlaers work

11:13 PM  
Blogger Jason Greenberg Motamedi said...

Many thanks to Oren for such a beautiful and thoughtful post on Daguerreotypy. For those interested, I have a few recent daguerreotypes here:

8:22 PM  

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