Sixth Plate



49    Terms of Sale

FIRST SIDE VIEW OF A FIGURE! This masterpiece has been accurately described as the earliest known daguerreian profile of a person. It might have been executed before Robert Cornelius made his remarkable self-portrait. Prior to my purchasing the plate from a dealer, he sent it to a highly regarded researcher who used an electron microscope to minutely examine every nuance. The results were fascinating and revealing. The researcher concluded that the man was daguerreotyped in early 1840. The sixth plate, slightly larger than the standard size of 2 3/4 inches x 3 1/4 inches, was singly sensitized with iodine (following the prescribed method of Daguerre). The example was not made by Robert Cornelius (a superb pioneer of the art in Philadelphia) and the experimenter hadn't been active very long. The reasoning behind the last bit of information was, as the researcher wrote, "He was making platelets not particles; once you learn to go beyond that, those platelets will break up into thousands of particles". Actually, these facts were part of an article published in the October 1989 issue of "Johns Hopkins Magazine" a widely circulated, prestigious journal.

I was aware of the information in that article when I nervously removed the package (a thick piece of glass covered a rectangular, gold foil paper mat that framed the heavy plate. It had originally been sealed together with thin, nearly transparent tape. The scattered remnants were in the bottom of the case. The corners of the plate were cut square and the sides were absolutely flat, with a faint bevel on the top and bottom edges. While I inspected the plate I noticed a highly visible crescent of bare copper (where the silver has disappeared) just above the unknown sitter's forehead. My concern, from physical experience in examining many naked plates, was that the silver would further lift from the copper if any disturbance touched the surface. After completing my visual tour, I had a new piece of glass cut and carefully resealed the package using Filmoplast P90. The researcher did not speculate why remnants of red sealing wax was present in three corners on the surface of the mat. I haven’t determined a reason either.

Later, the researcher visited my studio and we had an interesting discussion about the man in profile. I asked why the daguerreotype couldn't have been made in the fall of 1839. Because of her previous research examining daguerreotypes produced by Robert Cornelius she said that when her report was written about my portrait she hadn't considered that anyone else was so advanced during that period. Now she speculated that the profile was probably taken between October and December 1839.

Further study revealed that the heavy-set gent had a cold toned, blue/gray hue in his appearance. The subject was difficult to examine at most viewing angles. The surface had a broad band of nearly rectangular tarnish, various spots and dots caused by corrosion from the glass and heavy horizontal buff strokes (created during the crucial step when the plate was polished). The scrapes in the lower right corner were probably done later when someone attempted to wipe off the tarnish and mercifully stopped before destroying the image. When the plate is viewed horizontally at eye level, in raking light, it is possible to notice slight waves in the surface made when an imperfect rolling device cold clad the silver and copper. Also, at a shallow angle, a layer of shellac, which was usually applied as a final step to protect the surface, is visible.

Why was the man daguerreotyped in profile? One knowledgeable person thought that he might have had a deformity on his face. More plausible though is the obvious fact, that in 1839, all the experimenters were having difficulty successfully exposing a plate in much less than 10 to 30 minutes even in direct sunlight! The sitter couldn't have kept his eyes open the entire time and tears would have streamed down his flaccid cheeks. I believe the maker turned him sideways for his client’s comfort and instructed him to close his eyes if necessary. Even with his head partially immobilized by an iron restraint, normal respiration caused movement during the long exposure. Also remember, the lenses were crudely constructed. Focusing them was a challenge and depth of field (the length of focus from front to back) was extremely shallow.

The source of the illumination was either direct sunlight outdoors or else it was reflected onto the gentleman's face by two mirrors, while he was seated inside. It is difficult to ascertain if the apparent shadows at the tip of his nose and along the length of his face are actually shadows or merely ghosts from his involuntary movement. If they are shadows, then the man's face was nearly touching the neutral colored background.

The nearly mint whole red leather case is domed on both sides and was embossed with a repetitive pattern of leaves, acorns, circles and diamonds. A faded, plain purple silk pad is opposite the image, which was held securely by a dark green velvet liner surrounding the plate. The case was traditionally hinged on the left side. There was a single substantial hook and latch on the right side. A slightly smaller version of this case, with flat sides and the same pattern is often referred to as the Cornelius case, since several of his extant daguerreotypes are housed inside. Actually, that case theme was used by other makers who experimented in the art as well. I have examined several daguerreotypes in identical sixth size cases that were produced by unidentified operators. In 2011, I removed a portrait of a young father holding his little girl. Her dress was tinted pale red. In the bottom of their “Cornelius” style case was a printed label with this information. "Manufactured By Henry Habermehl, No. 131, S. Sixth Street, Philadelphia". The pair was most likely taken in late 1842, about the time this particular impression in the leather ceased to be used. Not all very early portraits were presented in traditional leather cases. They were also displayed in elaborately embossed brass and exquisitely finished wooden frames.

Robert Cornelius did daguerreotype Fielding Lucas Jr. in 1842. That dag was reproduced in Robert Cornelius Portraits from the Dawn of Photography on pages 98 and 99. I have often wondered if Lucas posed for an unknown daguerreian in 1839 when he would have been 58 years old and was presented with my daguerreotype at that time. He was a heavy-set gent with a fleshy face, a small chin, an expansive nose and a mop of salt and pepper hued hair.

This extraordinary experimental very rare artifact was created at the dawn of the American era of daguerreotypy!

For Purchase Inquiry Contact:
Dennis A. Waters at