Monday, October 14, 2013

Mysterious Daguerreotype Of Brooklyn NYC c. 1850 Est. $20K-$30K

by Stephen J. Gertz

A haunting, whole-plate daguerreotype of a street tableau in Brooklyn, New York City, staged and photographed c. mid-1850s, is being offered by Swann Auction Galleries on Thursday, October 17, 2013 in its Fine Photographs and Photobooks sale. It is estimated to sell for $20,000 - $30,000.

In this striking photo, a very quiet, treeless street lined with buildings of various architectural styles is populated by two enigmatic women who seem to be engaged in an entre-nous exchange at a doorway on a porch, their faces obscured, both by the distance at which the photographer was positioned and by a parasol held by the woman at left. They may know each other; they may not. One may live or work in the building, the other may be a visiting friend, business patron, or who knows and their ambiguous interaction hints of mystery and an intriguing, if inscrutable, story that begs to be deciphered.

The photo was certainly posed and not a candid snapshot. At this point in their development daguerreotypes took up to twenty minutes to expose; the women are in sharp focus; they stood there like stones until the photographer told them otherwise; this was not Candid Camera.

The owner of this daguerreotype (8.5 x 6.5 inches) purchased it with the understanding that it depicted Brooklyn, one of New York City's five boroughs. Architectural historian Francis Morrone, author of An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn (2001), asserts that, based on fire laws of the period (which prohibited new wooden house construction), the fringed or scalloped valances which were fashionable when wooden houses were being built, and the appearance of the Greek Revival house, the daguerreotype likely depicts a scene in Greenpoint, the northernmost neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The image features three beautiful buildings bathed in sunlight, each of them rivals for our attention  asking the inevitable question the image raises and the viewer wonders: are they the real subject of the daguerreotype, or does the staged scene hint at lost moment in time? This is the central drama of the photo, what stirs the imagination and makes it so desirable to collectors.

The elaborately designed wood-frame home at left displays a brick base, two porches, a pointed roof, and an artful bargeboard, while the wood-frame house at far right is minimalist with a simple jigsaw-cut bargeboard along the underside of the top gable serving as the structure's only ornamentation. The sun, shining in from the upper left side of the image, casts delicate shadows on the wooden boards, and highlights the delicate work of the architectural style. The large modified Greek Revival building in the center has a flat brick front and brownstone trimmings around the door and windows. The small porch is decorated with two potted plants astride the stairs, each with delicate hand-colored touches of red and green.

This scarce and stunning daguerreotype - the only known copy - is reproduced in John Wood's The Daguerreotype: A Sesquicentennial Celebration (1989), where he notes that the signage on the right and left buildings' sides are legible as the office of Dr. H.B. May, the shop of J. Wood (a butcher), and a builder whose sign can be partially read. The plate was in the collection of Julian Wolff. 

With its inclusion of an ambiguous narrative within what was plainly an architectural photograph, this daguerreotype suggests the mid-twentieth century shift in fashion photography to present the clothing within a visual story often having nothing at all to do with the clothes or models yet nonetheless drawing us into an arresting image not easily forgotten, the fashions brought to life within an artificial reality. Here, the mystery women in the doorway animate the buildings and transform them into compelling characters in a secret history.

The deft composition, masterful handling of detail, insertion of figures and injection of mystery into this remarkable piece indicates that it was made by a skilled, highly imaginative photographer, alas, unknown. 

For these reasons it must be considered amongst the great American urban architectural photographs of the nineteenth century.

Images courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries, with our thanks.

1 comment:

  1. This photo could be attributed to the "Meade Brothers' who married two girls from Greenpoint BKLYN

    Almon Roff of Greenpoint had a daughter Marietta who married Charles Meade in 1851.
    Charles Meade had a brother Henry who married Sarah Meserole in 1853.
    1.1. On September 7, 1853, Henry Meade married Sarah A. Meserole, whose Huguenot ancestors had been among the first to settle in what came to be known as the Greenpoint and Williamsburgh communities on Long Island and chose New York City’s prestigious Trinity Church for the nuptials.

    Their is a daguerreotype photo of Almon Roff's house in Greenpoint in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

    In 1855 and 1856 Henry Meades residense was listed as the same as Almon Roff's (Father In law) His residence was listed on Franklin Street, near Freeman, Green Point which is the Roff house depicted in the aforementioned photo.

    I hope that helps

    Dan Cumberland


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