Thursday, September 28, 2023

Franklin's knowledge of the Daguerreotype Process

One of the questions about the Daguerreotypes by Beard that were auctioned off last week at Sotheby's has been whether or not Beard's operator would have used a reversing prism or mirror (there could also have possibly been more than one operator, and more than one sitting). Harry Goodsir noted the photographer's arrival, though he mistook the process, calling him a "Talbotypist," as he had some experiece with that process, and had sat for a portrait using it, back in Scotland.

Franklin himself, though, was already quite familiar with the Daguerreotype process, and indeed with Richard Beard's studio. Francis Russell Nixon, the newly-consecrated Bishop of Van Diemen's Land, had in fact brought with him several of Beard's Daguerreotypes when he arrived in Hobart Town in 1843, and it's very likely Franklin saw them. Nixon also showed them to Alfred Bock, who was so delighted by them that he embarked on what was to be a lengthy career as one of Australia's pioneering photographers. Bock tried to establish a commercial studio, but was discouraged when George Barron Goodman -- who had purchased a sub-patent from Beard -- complained about Beck's advertisements. This pushed the opening of his establishment to 1847, though he seems to have been privately active as a photographer throughout the period of the delay.

Dr. William Bland, by Goodman
Goodman had opened his first studio in Sydney in 1842, urging local citizens to "endure half a minute of immobility" to obtain a fine portrait, using a structure he built on the roof of the Royal Hotel in Sydney. He was not, alas, as successful in this endeavor as Beard; his images came out rather dark, one local reviews spoke of a "want of life" while another decried their "cadaverous and unearthly appearance." The surviving images don't seem quite as awful as all that, though many do seem to lack contrast. For our purposes, what matters is that Goodman left Sydney for Hobart in 1843, opening a Daguerreian studio in a boarding house at 20 Patrick Street, which was in business from that summer to February of 1844. After his departure, he continued the pattern of running his studio out of temporary quarters, and after a few years of further moves, he quit the business and retired to the Continent, dying in Paris in 1851. 

The takeway from all this is that Franklin, either through Bishop Nixon (who became a close friend of the Franklins), Bock (who was the son of the ex-convict painter Thomas Bock, known for his portrait of the Franklins' adopted daughter Mathinna), or Goodman, was surely acquainted with the Daguerreotype process. Further confirmation comes via an item published in the very first issue of the Tasmanian Journal -- the organ of the Royal Society of Tasmania, founded by the Franklins -- in which an excerpt from a letter from Dr. Richardson to Franklin was published, touching specifically on Daguerreotypes, their use in photographing natural history specimens (!), and a method for turning them directly into printing plates in order to reproduce them. While this method -- which was destructive of the original Daguerreotype -- never caught on, the fact that Franklin and Richardson were discussing it with such easily familiarity as early as 1840 seems quite clear evidence that both men had already taken a keen interest in the process, even before local operators arrived in Hobart.

courtesy Sotheby's
So when, in May of 1845, Franklin sat for what (so far as we know) was his first and only Daguerreotypic portrait, he had been familiar with the technology for more than five years -- and, I suspect, would have noticed the presence or absence of a mirror or prism on the front of the camera, and deduced (or inquired about) its purpose. In either orientation, his Daguerreotype shows the medals on the "short" side (underside) of his uniform, which is the wrong side, so he must have anticipated their being reversed.  And I believe he would have noticed if Beard's operator had used a mirror or prism -- so my surmise would be that he did not. Beard's may well have advertised -- and produced -- non-reversed images, but that may just as readily been done in the copying process as when the image was first taken. 

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