Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Massachusetts Photographers in the 19th Century

May is National Photography Month! People are taking more photos now than ever before, thanks to the advancements of digital photographic processes. And because of the Internet, photographs can now be uploaded and shared almost instantaneously with anyone in almost any part of the world. The State Library is currently working on its own photographic digitization projects: in the works is the digitization of our collection of WWI Massachusetts soldiers, and also of our legislative photograph collection.

Due to the ease and accessibility of photography nowadays, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to experience the very concept as it was in its early stages. Early photographic processes were quite time-consuming and labor-intensive, and images were difficult to reproduce. Despite this, photography flourished throughout Massachusetts in the 19th century, and cities and towns both large and small saw commercial and portrait photographers setting up shop all around the area.
Boston in particular was home to many famous first generation American photographers, some of whom captured the images of notable men and women active during this time period: John Adams Whipple (1822-1891) and James Wallace Black (1825-1896) worked both as partners and individually, and are known for their photos of people such as Daniel Webster, Walt Whitman, and John Brown; the photographic firm Southworth & Hawes (Albert Sands Southworth (1811-1894) and Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808-1901)), also produced an extensive collection of famous portraits, including images of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Sumner, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

One great primary resource for early Massachusetts photographers are advertisements found within our collection of 19th century Boston directories, which provide insight about the various types of services that were provided. For example, an 1848 advertisement for Southworth & Hawes states: “We take great pains to have Miniatures of deceased persons agreeable and satisfactory, and they are often so natural as to seem, even to Artists, in a quiet sleep.”

Another more exhaustive resource, organized by town or city name, is “A Directory of Massachusetts Photographers, 1839-1900”; the authors of this book compiled information on nearly every photographer in Massachusetts between the years 1839 to 1900, including their business addresses, examples of their work (if available), and other pertinent info that the authors were able to uncover in their research.

As a final note, this is a good opportunity to invite you to please check out the State Library’s official Flickr page! Our Flickr is full of images from our collections, including those of WWI Massachusetts soldiers, over 100 photographs documenting the damage caused by the hurricane of 1936, and a large collection of photographs depicting Massachusetts roads and highways from 1892 to 1893.

Kaitlin Connolly
Library Technician, Reference Dept.