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Monday, April 03, 2006

I Hurried

Synchronicity: I followed Paul Butzi's excellent advice shortly before he posted it. This past Sunday I set aside my work for a few hours, hopped into the Orenmobile and made my way up to Andover to see the Southworth and Hawes daguerreotypes before the exhibition closed.

'Twas well worth the trouble. This exhibition is a rare opportunity to see a large and varied sample from the prodigious output of these pioneering Boston daguerreotypists. The mounting and illumination allow the viewer to study these jewels closely, while the excellent annotation and interesting collateral material place the pictures effectively in historical, esthetic and technical context. We can see the Southworth and Hawes studio as the commercial venture it was, and understand how clear seeing, innovative technique, clever marketing and even a sense of humor combined to create a body of work that resonates to this day.

Several of the pictures stand out especially in my recollection: an eerie whole-plate image of Rufus Choate; a beady-eyed Daniel Webster; a charming miniature of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; a post-mortem portrait of a young child, so delicate and peaceful as to be almost unbearable to view.

These pictures are fascinating from a technical perspective as well. Unlike the still-life images and many of the scenic views, most of the portraits are substantially or entirely out of focus or blurred, reflecting the challenges of capturing a living, breathing being with the technology of the day. Even so, the smooth and forgiving near-focus bokeh of the lenses used often makes for a rendering that is quite convincing at reasonable viewing distances; the best of them are simply exquisite.

The unusually comprehensive exhibition catalog may be the definitive work on Southworth and Hawes. But be forewarned: it is a truly ponderous volume. I literally had difficulty lifting it. And while the pictorial reproductions are reasonably good on the whole, not surprisingly they do not capture the magic of the originals.

So if you're within hailing distance, go see the real thing, while you can.

Posted by OREN GRAD

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