In the summer of 2005, I went on a college trip with my son during which we went to see an exhibit of the self-portraits of Chuck Close at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. There were so many of them, some in monumental size, that one couldn’t help thinking that it was all just a bit self-indulgent. But then in the very last room, just before you left the exhibit, there was something truly remarkable and yes, more than a bit magical. On one side of the door were modern daguerreotypes and one the other holographs. On the one side was one of the earliest forms of photography on the other side was the most modern.
Daguerreotypes are unmistakable. The image seems to hang there, not quite on the surface, but somehow suspended in space. They demand that you draw them out. If you look directly at a daguerreotype all you see is a shiny mirrored surface. It is only when you look at a slight angle that you see the image. Holographs also seem suspended in some kind of nether space and, of course, in the case of the Close portraits he seemed to follow and watch you as you move your head from side to side. Both of these seemed truly magical – bookends on what is now an almost 200 year journey.
And the journey is itself book ended by two senses of wonder. Imagine that you were a young woman living in New York City in the early 1850’s. You have been to a dinner party during which you have been shown one of Msr. Daguerre’s little miracles in a fine leather case with a gilded frame. Now you are determined to go to one of the multitude of Daguerreian parlors on Broadway, maybe even Mr. Matthew Brady’s prestigious parlor, and have your own image taken, perhaps for that special beau. You sit in a stiff chair, head held rigidly in a state of forced rigor for what seems an eternity. But in the end it was worth the effort. The results are truly marvelous.
I have several of these daguerreotypes. One in a fine leather case with mother of pearl inlay is of a very pretty young woman, her hair tired back in the style of the day and wearing a long necklace of beads. In my imagination, I see that this was a gift for her fiancé. The second is in a tiny leather case and is of a young girl in curls. Behind the picture is a piece of paper on which is written “1864 aged 2.” One imagines this lovingly carried by a soldier in the American Civil War. The book ended magic is that both of these people are frozen by a combination of light and silver in time. Both lived their lives and died. But their images are forever captured by photochemistry. They are forever young.