Review - The 2020 Daguerreian Society Symposium

One of the developments of the pandemic has been a reassessment of what we are going to risk by gathering, be it with your family, friends, or colleagues. Most professional organizations, symposiums, conferences, and trade shows have fallen by the wayside. Into the breach has come Zoom, a useful, if inelegant solution. And for a variety of lectures, meetings, and demonstrations, Zoom has worked fine.

But how does Zoom work for a symposium that gathers experts and collectors — those impassioned lovers of small metal plates carrying an impossibly thin and delicate sliver of silver that have to be viewed in-person, at just the right angle, in a specific light, for a glimpse of life captured over 150 years ago? How does an electronically based representation of that experience work?

In the case of The Daguerreian Society, the annual gathering is a hands-on treasure chest of astonishingly beautiful objects that don’t merely recall history, but are themselves history. Thus creating a remote symposium presents a challenge. How do you duplicate or embody the experience of bumping into colleagues, stopping enthralled at tables full of discoveries, picking up a rare piece to examine close up, attending lectures and panel discussions, and just plain kibitzing?

That was the challenge facing the team who volunteered their time and effort to run the Symposium. What was the Society’s solution? Using Zoom, they created a symposium, with a wide variety of speakers, panels, an auction and trade show, and breakout rooms for like-minded folks to gather and talk. True, you can’t hold that daguerreotype in your hands, but the Society has always struck me as being mostly about education, in the belief that the best collectors are informed and educated ones. Plus, this is a group seriously at ease with their passion for the medium.

The Society was formed in 1988 as a group “dedicated to the history, science, and art of the daguerreotype,” but has expanded its mission; hence the Society’s new tag line: “dedicated to the history, science, and art of early photography and processes.” Today, in addition to daguerreotypes, more than 90% of Society members collect other types of photographs and processes.

Normally, the Society hosts on an annual five-day conference, but due to the pandemic, they cut two days from the event, but kept a full schedule of speakers, panels, and museum tours, created a Virtual Trade Fair, a benefit auction, and even informal time to chat over drinks or dinner. Stats for the conference were 146 registrations with 115 participants. There were ten dealer trade rooms. It was not uncommon to see 90 or more participants during sessions, which indicated a high level of both interest and participation, all signs of a successful symposium.

The festivities kicked off on Friday at 1 p.m. with video tours of the Early Photograph Collections at the National Museum of the American Indian, led by Emily Moazami, the Supervisory Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Aaron Bryant, a museum curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, led a tour of Viral Images: Frederick Douglass, Social Media, Pictures, and Progress. His presentation explored objects related to Frederick Douglass in the museum’s collection to show how Douglass used images and the “social media” of his time to create viral images that celebrated social equality, justice, and African American self-image making. It was inspired by a lecture that Douglass gave on December 3, 1861, at Tremont Temple in Boston, Massachusetts.

Diane Waggoner, Curator of Nineteenth-Century Photographs in the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, provided a tour of The Eye of the Sun: Nineteenth- Century Photography from the National Gallery of Art.

Miriam Hiebert, PhD in Materials Science, with a focus on the analysis and mitigation of glass alteration in museums, discussed Analyzing Glass Photographic Plates from Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion SeriesScientists at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute in conjunction with photography curator Shannon Perich and museum specialist Sarah Oakman have embarked on a new study of the glass deterioration in hundreds of these Muybridge plates.

Saturday began with the public opening of the Virtual Trade Fair. The first panel talk began at 1 p.m.

Collectors & Curators: The Story of Two Major Museum Acquisitions of 19th-Century Photography; moderator Chris Mahoney, with Liz Siegel, Jeff Rosenheim, Willie Schaeffer, and Bruce Lundberg.

I enjoyed this panel and felt it was very successful. There was an open and relaxed air to the proceedings, and it felt like a dream afternoon coffee klatch, with candid and informed discussions of the challenges faced by museums, curators, collectors, donors, and the strategies to convince museum management of the power of these collections. Best of all, it demystified the process, helping to normalize the end result. The different collecting impulses, the interests of curators, museums, and committees, fundraising and development, and the wish to keep collections together, are all contributors to the challenges that museums face.

In 2019, the Art Institute of Chicago announced that it had received the W. D. and Delaney Lundberg Collection of 19th-Century American Photography, and in 2020, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, announced the acquisition of over 700 photographs from the collection of Drew Knowlton and William L. Schaeffer. Chris Mahoney began by stating that “both collections were legendary within the photo world, both were decades in the making, and were begun in the early days of the photographic art market.” Liz Siegel began by asking “What does this mean for the Art Institute? …It’s pretty easy to describe this in one word, and I would say, ‘transformational.’ It’s really a game changer for our holdings of photography. And it’s because we just didn’t have a lot in this area.”

“So, every museum is a collection of collections, and we were fortunate to have gotten the 19th century into our collections from as early as when we got the Stieglitz collection in 1949. All of a sudden it adds to our understanding, not just of the history of photography, but the history of our country as well.” She presented 30 images from the collection, and discussed the completeness of the collection, “having it all in one fell swoop.” Collector Lundberg discussed the importance of his interactions with museum curators, with the resulting friendship and familiarity that allowed Siegel to truly understand the collection. This pointed out the importance of collectors, but also the connections among friends, colleagues, and donors that make this possible.

Jeff Rosenheim began his presentation with a slide that stated “Some Really Good Photographs from the collection of William L. Schaeffer,” which provided a perfect segue into the examples from the collection. Rosenheim talked about the work with the enthusiasm and love that a child might have for his favorite hiking boots. Like that child, I really did believe that just like a kid will put his favorite boots under his bed at night, so could I imagine that Rosenheim was just as excited about some of these images, especially an extraordinary albumen print of a roller skate on a table. This enthusiasm is catching, and it was impossible to listen to his, and other presentations, without that same abandon and joy.

With two prominent museum curators, and two preeminent collectors on the panel, it was an honor to be privy to the stories of how these two legendary collections came to find homes in the museums they ended up in. Along with the images’ historical background, we also learned how some of the work came to be collected in the first place. Bruce Lundberg discussed how he came to possess a tintype of a group of whalers with their gear. The story was that a gentleman named Lee Flornoy was a collector and dealer of antiques and other objects, and he had built a private collection that he set aside for himself, and this tintype was in that personal collection.

Joe Buberger, learned about the collection, and started to visit Flornoy, who was now in a nursing home, and they spent time together, discussed his collection, and, eventually, Buberger persuaded Flornoy to sell the work to him, whereupon Buberger later sold the work to Lundberg. It was commented upon, that it was actually quite rare to see images of whalers and their gear, so it stood out as unique. Comparing it to the plethora of images from the Gold Rush, Lundberg wondered, how often do you see a tintype of whaling?

Willie Schaeffer showed an albumen print from the 1870s, of what he assumes to have been a pet frog. Not only was this a fun image, but as he said, “There was always something about this one particular carte that blew me away” including the news that there was a stereo version with the same frog. Jeff Rosenheim went on to discuss the image in terms of the newspaper background that the frog sat upon, the beautiful sense of light, with a print quality that was described as “amazing.” This discussion ran long, but fortunately, when Mahoney presented the option of wrapping things up, or having additional questions, it was obvious to all that continuing was the better choice.

Mahoney’s description of the work presented by the panel was that there was “an amazing array of images this afternoon, jaw-dropping image, after jaw-dropping image,” and asked the question, “Why is it important for us, today, to be looking at 19th-century photographs?” Siegel, answered the question with an elegant response that included the affirmation that “in these early years, there was a development of…a new language of communication” with an impact in the present day. Jeff Rosenheim’s answer complemented Siegel’s: “The 19th century is the birth of the medium, it’s the last great medium that’s been invented, and the reality is that we are still trying to understand what the role of the camera is in our society, and what the product, the photography is, and we’re just getting to it.”

Rosenheim went on to add, “We really acquire more 19th-century pictures than we do contemporary and 20th-century pictures, by far.” The panel ended with statements by Lundberg, Schaeffer, Rosenheim, and Mahoney on the importance and opportunity presented by 19th-century work. Typical of all of the presentations, there was much to unpack, and I viewed the videos of the discussions multiple times, each time gaining a new appreciation for the knowledge imparted. Well done!

The next panel started at 3 p.m., Avoiding Fakes and the Pain They Cause with moderator Mike Medhurst, with WesCowan, Perry Frohne, and Greg French.

With advances in chemistry, digital imaging, scanning, and printing, comes the ever-present growth of fakes and counterfeits. Some of the examples seemed obvious at first, yet they apparently fooled enough people to be of concern, while other examples were difficult to detect, unless viewers had a combination of knowledge of content, age, materials, science, and presentation. While one might presume that detecting fakes was primarily a scientific endeavor, the panel suggested otherwise, that one needed to be aware of all the clues to form a truly informed decision.

With a voiceover like God, Len Walle introduced the panelists. Mike Medhurst, the current President of The Daguerreian Society, moderated the panels. Medhurst was a great choice to lead this group of experts. The participants were Wes Cowan (known for his appearances on Antiques Roadshow, among other ventures), Greg French, and Perry Frohne, who Len Walle described as the “sheriff of things being sold on eBay,” which grew out of his pioneering website page “Alerts: Fakes and Frauds,” begun in 1998. A viewer knew that the panelists earned their chops as they had more than 150 years of cumulative experience.

Similar to the first panel, this was a lot of fun. The panelists all knew each other, and were trading jokes, asking if others had seen other examples of the work in question. The description of efforts to fake cartes-de-visite and albumen prints was illuminating, since for many of the fraudulent works all that was required to reveal the fakery was a magnifying loupe. Laser prints, wrong mounts, faked signatures, misidentified subjects, and more all were circulating in the market. There was discussion of ink, especially relative to Civil War portraits, including fake identification. Even with the obvious use of a re-enactor, one piece managed to be sold as genuine Civil War imagery.

EBay came in for its role as a platform for fakes, some of which you can spot, if you know what you are looking for. Buyer Beware is the heart of the discussion, as it’s easy to create a fake destined for eBay auctions. That’s one of the issues collectors face when trying to ascertain the authenticity of work that is only viewable online. The presentation revealed the clues that need to be noted to reveal if something is real or fake. The presenters also related stories of sellers, who despite being informed they were selling fakes, continued to sell them. If there was one underlying message of the panelists, it was Caveat Emptor, trust no one (except for Daguerreian Society members), and always carry a good loupe in your pocket. 

Saturday afternoon at 4:30 there was a preview of the Benefit Auction and then the auction commenced at 6 p.m.

Sunday began with two panels, both of which were timely, and generated a lot of interest.

At 1 p.m., the first panel of the day began: African American Photographymoderated by Greg FrenchBill Beckerbegan by introducing the panelists, Dr. Makeda Best, Craig James Esq., and Dennis Williams. Dr. Best discussed her first encounters of photographs of African Americans, which were rarely seen in a public context, as they existed in private collections. Becker gave a shout out for Best’s recently published book Elevate the Masses — Alexander Gardner, Photography, and Democracy in Nineteenth-Century America, which provided a perfect transition to Dennis Williams’s discussion of the origins of his collecting black memorabilia, which began when a colleague asked him if he ever thought about collecting photographs.

After creating his first eBay account, Williams purchased his first image, a tintype of a young boy with his hat, and after that he was “just floored” and has been collecting ever since. Dennis took his friend Craig James along with him to search for photographs, and a trip to Emeryville, California, followed. “And I was in awe. It was something that I did not know existed. I was able to hold so much history in the palms of my hands, and then, while there at Emeryville, I think I spent most of my time sitting at the table of a great collector, who opened up himself up to me, and we talked for hours, and that collector was Greg French, and from that day on, I just fell in love with the images.”

Greg French asked how the increasing cost of African Americans images has affected their collections. James answered by saying that the same image of a black child might be many times more expensive than of a white child. “There was a time that we were considered so much less, in the population at large, especially in the South,” stated James, “but yet, in the photography world today, our image that has been captured, demands so much more.”

Williams answered by saying, “The prices at first, when I found out about them, kind of shocked me, especially daguerreotypes.” “When I first started you know, I thought about it, and how in the world am I going to afford to have a decent collection, especially at these prices. But I found a way to do that, and it does take some soul searching, to come to grips with some of these images, the prices of them. But, I had to decide, either I’m going to have a collection, a noteworthy collection, or I’m going to have just a lot of images. And I made a decision to have a noteworthy collection, and I found a way to get the financing to buy these images at these prices.”

French then asked Best, “You’re in a different reality because you depend on institutional budgets. How do you prioritize your acquisitions?” She answered: “It’s interesting to listen to Dennis and Craig, and as an African American myself, there is a sense of unease, seeing the quality that some people just arbitrarily put prices on, that sometimes you know that it’s just pure speculation, and it’s unfortunate to see, and other times you do wonder if it’s speculation and it’s a fad, and you wonder about what is the context in which these images are going to appear. Are people just buying them because it’s an investment, and they think that one day they can sell it, or is it actually be used in a context in which it will be shared or learned from? And those questions come to my mind when I see some of these prices. I work at an academic museum, and we do need images to teach with. So, we have to acquire works that we need for the collection.”

The discussion continued about the types of images collected, specifically portraits, which James and Williams collected, vs. Best, who collected images based more on their context and historical merit. Famous names may not be important because people are drawn to exhibitions, where they can use their imaginations to create a narrative. The question of images without identification of the subjects came up, and Best offered her belief that images of anyone, private citizens, White or Black, are due protection from public use, printing, or dissemination in her museum.

As to the question of mixed race in a photograph or determining ethnicity in an image, there was agreement that “It can be a difficult matter.” Obviously this is a loaded question, and the unease of all was apparent. Best then answered a question about Alexander Gardner, and she described that it is about his early years in Scotland, and how they contributed to his support for different causes. A number of questions yet to be answered were still in the queue, when it was time to conclude the panel. This is a subject that deserves more discussion, and I look forward to another such panel.

At 3 p.m., Michael Lehr, introduced the final panel of the day, Young Collectors, moderated by Erin Waters, with Liberty Lehr, Michael Scimeca, and Elliot Conte. Waters started by showing a photograph of some kids from the Young Photographers Club in Pittsburgh, checking out $5 boxes of tintypes. The kids had never seen photographs like this before, so she gave them a lesson and gave them each one as a little gift. One child even returned with his own money and bought a couple of snapshots for one dollar each. She added that she sees more and more younger people at shows, purchasing 19th-century photography, and that they are informed.


The first question was “Where did you see your first old photograph?

Liberty Lehr began: “I can’t remember when I saw my first photograph, but I definitely can remember when I realized it was strange to be living with lots of old photographs, because I remember, I must have been about 10 years old, and one of my friends came to my house, and she knows that we had a post-mortem, and she goes, ‘Oh my goodness! Why do you have all these photographs of dead people?’ and she was really interested, so I start pullingthem out. I was like, ‘Yes, and look at this one, you know this is another dead baby.’ And she and I were like, ‘Wow, Ican’t believe that that people think this is so bizarre’ and then I started to realize that it wasn’t very normal to be surrounded by all these old photographs.”

Michael Scimeca followed by saying: “For me, I’ve always been interested in antiques and history, and I’ve always collected, like, different things here and there, but never really seriously, until I bought daguerreotypes. When I was 15 or 16, I heard about Victorian mourning jewelry, and that led me to eBay to look through different examples, and I came across this daguerreian locket. One side was a young man and the other side was a young woman, and it was described as a mourning locket piece, which I didn’t know at the time, but I now know that it probably wasn’t, it was just a daguerreian locket. But at that point I had never seen a daguerreotype or ever seen any kind of antique photograph, but I thought it was so cool, and I bought it. Ever since then, like, I’ve been collecting antique photographs. After I bought the daguerreian locket, I bought cabinet cards and CDVs, and tintypes, but now I’m kinda staying away from it now, and I’m more into daguerreotypes. That’s where it started, on eBay actually. That’s where I saw my first one.”

Elliot Conte, was next, saying: “Yeah, my story is kind of similar to Michael’s. You know I think that Michael Lehr mentioned that I came from a family background of collecting. And while it was not daguerreotypes, not American antiques, it was antiquities, medieval coins and ancient coins, and that kind of thing. Like in some ways I was like the Liberty of the coin fairs, going to all these coin fairs when I was like, five, six, seven years old, getting free cheap little coins from them, things like that. So I kind of probably disappointed them by not going into that as an adult. How I got into it as an adult, was that I was 18 and in college, and like Michael, I somehow came across reading about daguerreotypes online. I don’t remember how anymore, and I guess just something struck me, it was probably having that background and knowing that collecting is a thing that people do.”

“I just wondered, you know I wondered if you can buy these, and I wonder if it’s something you can do. I totally didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know if I was going to find if daguerreotypes were $10 each or $10,000 each. It might sound silly now to everyone here, but by the time I just had absolutely no idea, but when I found that you get them on eBay for, you know, $30, $40, $50, it was just something spontaneous, I just bought a cheap one. And, seeing a daguerreotype in person, I think everyone who would be on this call knows how that’s completely different from seeing an image of one online. You know, they just have a quality in person that is hard to communicate, and something about that really captured me at that time. So it was daguerreotypes first for me, and then kind of from there, in years after, kind of branching out into other mediums CDVs, cabinet cards, tintypes, ambrotypes, etc.”

What followed was an extraordinarily erudite discussion that touched upon collecting, favorite images, their best deals and discoveries, and even going into the business of being a dealer. This was a look at what drives a young person to collect work. The commonality was that each pursued a passion of theirs. This isn’t surprising, of course, to any collector, but what I found most interesting was that their initial impulse wasn’t about money, but being blown away by the images they found.

Liberty Lehr, the youngest of the panelists, is the daughter of well-known dealer Michael Lehr, and granddaughter of Janet Lehr, so she clearly came from a home where collecting was in the blood. This was a great panel, just the right number of panelists, all of whom who were able to comment on the work in detail, and as led by Erin Waters, there was an easy and friendly rapport. There’s hope for the future.

And at 5 p.m., the Symposium headed toward closing, followed by the 6 p.m. closing of the Virtual Trade Fair.

So, how was the Symposium? I thought it was wonderful. Not a replacement for gathering in person, but a well-run, organized, structured, and enjoyable weekend. Missing, of course, from previous Symposiums was going through the stacks of prints and daguerreotypes in person. But for the most part, the educational aspect was just as good, perhaps even better than in person. I also enjoyed that the Society was able to gather people from anywhere, some of whom might not have been able to attend in person, even if the pandemic wasn’t an issue. What’s wonderful about the audience is how varied it is. There were collectors, historians, educators, curators, practitioners, archivists, photo historians, dealers, and more.

It’s not easy to pull panelists all together, with no significant technological issues, but the Society was able to pull it off. One advantage to a virtual conference is that there is no need for travel plans, hotel rooms, transportation, and there are no food costs. The Annual 19th-Century Photographic Auction, a fundraiser for the Society, was a success. Diane Filippi, the Business Director for the Society, along with the Symposium Committee, adroitly managed the entire Symposium. Next year, I’ll be there, and I urge anyone interested in photography, history, collecting, scholarship, and exhibitions to join in. I think it’s fair to say, that a good time was had by all.

Harris Fogel with editorial support by Nancy Burlan, Stephen Perloff, and Sarah Weatherwax, Posted 1/11/2021

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