In the antebellum United States, the daguerreotype emerged as the unlikely object that animated a frenzied faith in science and technology as both the truest gauge of the effectiveness of the political experiment of democracy and the supreme means by which the human condition could be transformed through our relations to nature and to one another. Between 1839 and 1862, American artisans, scientists, and activists took up the new process of photography as the raw material for both technological and political experimentation. In these years, daguerreotypes and their producers participated in debates about the nature of democracy, race, materialism, citizenship, and labor. It was a moment when, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, you could hardly walk down the street without meeting someone who had a new plan for the world in his vest pocket. Such a plan, one might imagine, may also have been carefully folded away while sweetly nestled against a loved one’s daguerreotype. This talk will present in-progress research from the ongoing book project, Daguerreian Democracy, which examines the way that American innovations in daguerreotype technology intersected with antebellum politics and culture.
Michelle Smiley is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Her work has been supported by the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Philadelphia and by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Her research on the daguerreotype collections of Louis Agassiz has been published in journals including Panorama and Afterimage, and her writing on the photographic experiments of Joseph Saxton at the U.S. Mint is forthcoming in the Terra Foundation Essays series for American art.
Presented on July 17, 2021.