A Pioneering Photographer

As part of its year-long focus on photography, the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem is currently showing an exhibition (through October 8) of Ansel Adams’ images called At the Water’s Edge. The pictures are striking, of course, but I think I’ve seen too many Ansel Adams photographs in my life:  there’s a familiarity that is dulling the artistry for me.  Nevertheless, the thematic focus on water, the juxtaposition of small and HUGE photographs, and the sheer number of images on view makes the exhibition well worth seeing.

Ansel Adams,  Reflections at Mono Lake, California, 1948.

There must be room for one more exhibition in this “year of photography” so I am wondering whose work the PEM will showcase next. With the Jerry Uelsmann exhibit in the spring and the Adams exhibit on view this summer, we have been exposed to the work of two eminent twentieth-century photographers; for the last exhibit of the year, I’d like to see some earlier work.  My suggestion:  Salem-born Samuel Masury (c 1818-1874), a pioneering American daguerreotypist and photographer whose studio produced one of the most celebrated photographic portraits of the nineteenth century:  the “Ultima Thule” portrait of Edgar Allen Poe, taken just days after the author’s failed suicide attempts and less than a year before his death.

Samuel Masury (as drawn by Winslow Homer) in 1859 and Edgar Allen Poe in 1848:  this image was taken at the studio of Masury and F.W. Hartshorn in Providence, Rhode Island by their camera operator, Edwin H. Manchester.  Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Masury had learned the new art from Boston daguerreotypist John Plumbe in Boston in the early 1840s and by 1843 he had established a studio on Essex Street in Salem, offering daguerreotype miniatures, “in a new and elegant style, and of larger sizes than are generally taken.  MINIATURES taken at this gallery are warranted to give perfect satisfaction, and not to fade or change appearance in any way, or for any number of years. As many persons suppose that Daguerreotype Miniatures can only be taken in fair weather, I beg leave to say that, by a recent discovery, I am prepared to take Miniatures in cloudy weather, and will warrant  as good pictures taken in cloudy, as in pleasant weather.” (Salem Gazette, June 1, 1847).  Masury was always “discovering”:  new processes and techniques, new locations, new subjects, and he seemed to have “pop-up” studios in several northeastern cities. After traveling to France to learn the latest glass negative process he returned to America and set up a large Boston studio in partnership with G.M. Silsbee, and proceeded to turn out a variety of images:  many carte-de-visite cards, which must have been the bread and butter of this fledgling industry, but also architectural and landscape views.  The versatility of his subject matter is represented by the images below:  an extraordinary pair of cdv cards of Francis L. Clayton/Clalin, a cross-dressing female solider who served in the Union Army under the name of “Jack Williams”, and an early landscape looking towards the water, taken at the Loring Estate in Beverly in 1859. Clearly the meeting of water and land was as inspirational to the first generation of photographers as it was to their successors.

Francis. L. Clayton in uniform and a dress, 1863-64, Library of Congress; Early View from the Dell, 1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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