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Nick Vaccaro began collecting and dealing in 19th-century photography in 2009 at age 49. Before that, he spent nearly 25 years as a successful commercial photographer in New York City. One day, he was stopped in his tracks by an old photograph of a little girl.
"It was just a daguerreotype, really beautiful, of a young girl wearing a bonnet," he recalled, "and I just thought it is the most amazing photograph and there’s got to be more of those out there and I want to find them and I want to collect them."
Nick's collection - known for its exceptional quality and beauty - now numbers in the thousands. His main areas of collecting are early American circus life, occupationals, all types of transportation, images revolving around photography as a form of entertainment, and the history of photographers and the photography process.
The exhibition, "Forever Young: Victorian Photographs of Children and Their Toys," featured around 100 of his images and ran from October 8, 2016 - January 15, 2017.
Nick maintains a website called The Silver Canvas, which is both a selling platform and an online gallery with further background on him. It states that both of his parents were artists and that his dad was an Art professor who gave him "a very intensive education in both Art and American History." Nick also sells on eBay under the name nic-o-matic and is an active contributor to the Society's Facebook Group.
Dennis O. Williams, a test engineer for an analytics software company in Cary, North Carolina, owns one of the world’s leading private collections of mid-19th-century photographs of African Americans. A collector for over 20 years, he joined the Daguerreian Society in 2007 and has served as a board member (2011-2013), Treasurer (2013-2016), and longtime member of the Auction Committee. In November 2020, he spoke at the Society’s virtual Symposium, participating on a panel about early African American photography with his friend and fellow collector Craig James. Currently, a significant portion of Dennis’s collection is on exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
When did you start collecting early photography and how did you get into it?
In 2002, a coworker asked me about my collecting interest and I told him I collect Black memorabilia. He further asked if I had ever considered photographs. “What are you talking about?,” I responded. He proceeded to go on eBay to show me a tintype of a young Black boy. I was excited by what I saw. He helped me bid on the image and I eventually won it. When the tintype arrived and I opened the package, I immediately changed my collecting interest to early photographs of Black Americans.
Later I started searching online for more images. EBay was a good source, but I wanted to find more. I came across a site called finedags.com. My initial thought was, “Look at THESE things!” [Laughs.] I called the phone number on the site and Dennis Waters picked up. I asked him about daguerreotypes and he told me about African American daguerreotypes. He didn't have any at the moment, but he said, “If I come across one, I'll send you something.” I stayed in touch with him so that he would remember my interest.
In 2003, I attended the Daguerreian Symposium in Savannah, Georgia. The Symposium featured an exhibit of Greg French’s early African American photographs. The gallery was lined from wall to wall with outstanding images, at least 80, primarily daguerreotypes. Society members viewed these images with the utmost attention. I knew then that I wanted to advance my collection of African American daguerreotypes.
Tell me about your collection today.
I have approximately 50 images, primarily daguerreotypes of African Americans. When I started, I aimed to collect only slavery-related images, such as African American women with white children or African American children with white children. As I viewed other images of African Americans in other photographic formats, I knew I had to broaden my focus to include any Black American, enslaved or free. I also extended my collection to include a select number of other photographic processes in order to have a complete collection.
Early photographs of Black Americans are highly collectible and therefore relatively expensive. How have you been able to finance your passion?
I have been fortunate enough to fund my passion through my personal finances. I have traded and/or sold images a few times to obtain something better.
You currently have an exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts titled “A Powerful Influence: Early Photographs of African Americans from the Collection of Dennis O. Williams.” It includes around 25 portraits of Black Americans including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and early works on paper. What message would you like visitors to take away from the exhibition, which runs through May 8?
As visitors view these images, I want them to have three takeaways. First, I want people to visualize African Americans’ impact on society at that time. African Americans were present but not seen. The exhibit allows the viewer to see African Americans from the perspective of a person and not a property. Second, I want the exhibit to initiate meaningful conversation. For example, one of the images in the exhibit is of a young African American boy standing behind a young white boy. The young African American boy’s expression shows he was obligated to be there. This topic of a “sense of obligation” sparks a conversation about the relationship between the two young boys. Finally, I want viewers of the exhibit to understand photography’s powerful influence on African Americans. This influence is seen in Frederick Douglass's claim that because of daguerreotypes, “the humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.”
Anything else you’d like to say about the show?
This exhibition is personal to me because I was born in southern Virginia. I am incredibly humbled that I was invited to exhibit a significant part of my collection in the Virginia state museum.
What is your aspiration as a collector?
I would like to obtain a photograph of one of the pioneering African American advocates for the abolition of slavery, such as Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth.
Anything else you’d like to add?
These images are a crucial part of history, as they document the fact that African Americans were present and actively seeking representation in the 19th century. I hope they will serve as a source of inspiration and empowerment for all who see them.
Four personal favorites from the collection of Dennis O. Williams
Woman with Spectacles
Sixth-plate daguerreotype, ca. 1850
“My first daguerreotype purchase”
Haywood Dixon, a Master Carpenter at the Sandy
Lawn Plantation in Greene County, North CarolinaNinth-plate daguerreotype, ca. 1858
Young Man with Tattered Clothing
Ninth-plate ambrotype, ca. 1860
Civil War Soldier
Sixth-plate tintype, ca. 1863-65
Liliana Shortridge, a senior at Minnetonka High School outside of Minneapolis-St. Paul, began collecting 19th-century photographs a little over a year ago. She started with cabinet cards and soon homed in on daguerreotypes. In a year’s time, she has amassed more than 60 dags and roughly 50 other cased images. At last month’s Daguerreian Society Symposium in Chicago, she gave a well-received presentation on how she became hooked on collecting early portraits.
How did you get interested in early photography?
My first photos were cabinet cards. I went to an antique store in Minneapolis and they had boxes full of cabinet cards, probably 400 of them. I went through all the boxes and bought 30 that I really loved. After that, I decided I would go to as many antique stores as I could to look for old pictures. I went to two others that same day and got some more. After that, I just kept going to more antique stores. At one of them, they had daguerreotypes. I didn't know what daguerreotypes were, but they were really cheap and nice, so I bought them and my collection kept going from there.
Liliana Shortridge with some of her cased images at the Photo Fair in Chicago. At left, Jessica Brokaw, a family friend (photo credit: Carlos Vertanessian)
What was it about the early photographs that intrigued you?
When I first saw the old pictures, it was just cool to me that they were real people. I really liked being able to see exactly what a person looked like 170 years ago. I tried to imagine how they were as a person. You just don't get that kind of feeling when you look at a painting.
What led you to join The Daguerreian Society and how did you hear about it?
I joined after I learned about the Daguerreian Society Facebook group. I was posting on there to learn more about pictures and ask questions. Then Michael Lehr offered to sponsor me if I was interested in joining…and I was!
Do you remember how you came across the Society’s Facebook group in the first place?
I stumbled upon the group from another Facebook group. I was in the “Genealogy CLUES – Dating Old Photographs” group trying to figure out the dates of some of my old daguerreotypes and cabinet cards. Somebody said that I could go to the Daguerreian Society’s Facebook group and they would know more about pictures and how to date them.
Are there certain themes or subject matter that you like to focus on in your collection?
I like fancy dresses and fancy hair a lot. I’m also trying to find more European daguerreotypes. Their dresses are just way fancier than normal and they have cool hair. I'm also looking for Kilburn daguerreotypes with the clouds painted in the background. I think those are really, really nice. I would love to have some daguerreotypes of dogs and outdoor scenes, but I don't have any of those yet.
As a new member who just attended your first Symposium, what were your impressions?
When I first got there, I was really nervous. I arrived an hour before I had to give my presentation. But after it was done, I calmed down and I was really excited because we got to go room hopping and see everybody's pictures in their rooms. That was really, really fun. Everybody was really welcoming, so that was my first impression. Everybody was really nice to me.
What were some of the highlights for you?
A highlight was when I got to go around and see all the pictures at the Photo Fair. I had never seen outdoor daguerreotypes in person or a full-plate daguerreotype. They were really cool to look at. I saw some gold miner ones, too. Oh, and the live auction, when we watched a daguerreotype go for $32,000, that was really fun.
How can we make the Society more appealing to young people?
I think a lot of young people would go to the Symposium if they knew about it. I have about 600 followers on Instagram, where I post pictures from my collection. Most of my followers are younger people. Many of them reached out to me when I posted from the Symposium wanting to know where it was. They didn't know it was going on. I follow some people on Instagram who have tens of thousands of followers just from posting 1800s photos. Young people like old photos, so being more active on Instagram and getting noticed by people with large followings will help.
How has being a member of the Daguerreian Society helped you advance your collecting interest?
Being a member lets me see pictures that other people have. There are so many different types of daguerreotypes you can collect, and seeing what’s out there helps me learn new kinds that I may want to collect in the future. Also, being a member has put me in contact with a lot of people who collect and sell pictures. I've been getting pictures from some of them, which is really cool because their collections seem to be better than what’s available on eBay.
Nick Skezas, a radiologist in Chicago, has a couple thousand daguerreotypes in his collection. That’s a rough estimate – he hasn’t counted them in a while. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, he moved to the Windy City in 1987 for his radiology residency at Cook County Hospital. A member of The Daguerreian Society since 2000, he has attended almost every annual Symposium since then. He recently explained why he decided to be a sponsor this year.
What led you to join The Daguerreian Society?
In 1993 or so, I saw a daguerreotype in an antique store and it captivated me. I'd never seen one before, so I purchased it. Then around 1999, I started seeing more of them in antique stores and bought a few more. A friend said I should go on eBay, where I discovered a whole new world of daguerreotypes. So I started buying them on eBay like crazy. By purchasing from different sellers, I had the pleasure of meeting several folks online who introduced me to the Society. I was able to attend my first Symposium in Dearborn [Michigan] in 2000. After that, I became totally obsessed and my collection grew quickly. I've enjoyed going to the Symposia and meeting all the collectors, the dealers, scholars, everybody. I've made many great friends through this hobby and have enjoyed every related event.
Tell me about your collection. Are there certain themes you focus on?
I have roughly 2,000 daguerreotypes in my collection and they are predominantly portraits, especially male portraits. That has always been my main focus. But I have a little bit of everything, including ambrotypes and tintypes. Why do I collect these things? It's the aesthetics of portraiture, the beauty of the technique, the variety of beautiful cases and frames, and the associated history. I also collect contemporary daguerreotypes. I think they’re wonderful. I have perhaps 30 or 40 of them.
Why did you decide to be a sponsor of this year’s Symposium?
I wanted to sponsor to some extent because the host city of Chicago is my home. I felt obligated and maybe a tad guilty [because] I wasn't really involved in organizing the Symposium. I'm very thankful for those who did! I certainly wanted to help out in any way I could. I’m just pleased that folks are coming to my town.
What are you most looking forward to at this year's gathering?
Just to see the faces again, to see old friends and to reconnect, post-COVID. I always look forward to the lectures…and [this year] the boat tour. I've taken the tour before, and I’m sure everyone will enjoy it. As we cruise the Chicago River, guides will discuss the notable buildings, their architects and their history. Can’t wait to see everyone!
The Society regularly organizes educational programs exploring various aspects of the history, technology, art, and preservation of 19th-century photography.
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