December 30: Unlike other European countries Germany lacks the innovators in the first two decades of photography. No Henry Fox Talbot steps forth, no association like that of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson and no Barbizon School.
However, amongst the better daguerreotypists were Carl Ferdinand Selzner, born on this date in 1804, and Herman Biow who were then sharing a studio and are certainly among the first to use photography for journalistic purposes when they made a series recording the damages caused by the Great Fire in Hamburg. It began early on May 5, 1842 and burned until the morning of May 8, destroying 1,700 residences and several important public buildings, about one third of the city, and killed 51 people including 22 firefighters, leaving 22,000 homeless.
Unfortunately, with the exception of a few individual images by Biow, this series is said to be lost as Hamburg’s senate could not decide to buy them, as the records claim, due to “The possible lack of durability” of this new (French) kind of imagery. The technology then being a mere three years old, these are remarkable on-the-spot, location photographs, even though it would have been impractical to capture images of the fire itself.
These are amongst the earliest urban landscapes actually taken on location (and not from the photographer’s window), with the exception of Boston daguerreotypist Dr. Samuel A. Bemis’ (1840-1843) almost exclusively landscape imagery in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, all taken just outside on his farmland retreat.
A daguerreotypist would need very good reason to go outside to photograph with the cumbersome equipment of the earliest period of the technology which required the plate to be polished immediately before use, sensitised with iodine and then developed over the fumes from a bath of mercury, fixed in sodium thiosulphate and then gold-toned to protect the delicate image. In the Literary Gazette of 12 December 1840 John Frederick Goddard announced his discovery that bromine increased the sensitivity of daguerreotype plates, which brought faster exposure times. Nevertheless, being too far from their lab would make outdoor photography onerous, especially in this case, when half the city had been burned to rubble!
Out of the overwhelming numbers of daguerreotype portraits made in the first decade of its discovery, I cannot pass by Carl Ferdinand Stelzner’s. The medium necessitated absolutely static poses, and yet these are amongst the most dynamic of portraits. There is an energy here that prompts a search for more.
Stelzner’s portrait of this Italian dancer is a case in point. Taken so early in the history of daguerreotype images of people it is remarkable for its freshness, and the photographer’s intelligent approach to the problem of representing a dancer. We don’t see performers adopting such lively looking poses until ten years later, as in Nadar’s series of portraits of actor Jean-Charles Deburau.
In Stelzner’s Maria Taglioni she is posed partly reclining on a chair or chaise that has been bulked out with cushions or other padding and draped with a dark cloth. These preparations mean that the pose imitates the action of a dance, despite the exposure approaching half a minute or more. The feeling is enhanced by the repeated springing forms of the pot plant and some sense of the theatre scenery is conveyed in the exotic backdrop. Compositionally this picture is far more pleasing than most portrait daguerreotypes; it is clear that Selzner had an artist’s training.
He was the stepson of the portrait and miniature painter Carl Gottlieb Stelzner, who trained him in painting. In 1825 he traveled through Schleswig-Holstein and painted portraits of peasants and citizens. At the end of the 1820s he made study trips to Hamburg, Stockholm , Copenhagen and then to Paris where from 1831 to 1834 he was mentored by prominent miniature painters Jean-Baptiste Isabey and Claude Marie Dubufe. On return to Hamburg in 1837 he opened a studio, painting portrait miniatures.
Hearing of the new technique of photography, Stelzner returned quickly to Paris in 1839 to learn in person from Louis Daguerre how to make daguerreotypes. He then opened a daguerreotype studio in Hamburg with Hermann Blow (1804-1850). The partnership was short-lived and in 1843 he returned to his old studio to become the first daguerreotypist in Schleswig-Holstein and ultimately one of the best in Germany. His output was mainly portraits. His first wife Anna Caroline Stelzner (below), a miniaturist artist who was also his half-sister, coloured many of them and did the rephotography of the plates, since copying was the only way to reproduce the daguerreotype.
Despite the constraints of his medium, Selzner’s portraits rarely appear ‘frozen’. The position of Caroline’s arms and her sideways gaze are reinforced by the position of props such as the book on the table as a counterpoint to the one in her hand which infers movement, and the framing of the foliage of pot plants, repeated in the fabric of her dress and the tablecloth.
You can see Selzner experimenting with his own pose in these two self-portraits on which Caroline no doubt assisted. Though these two images are dated five years apart on the Hamburg Art Museum website , the photographer’s clothing, hair and the background are identical. The only change is in the pose and a lowering of the camera to provide a more regal impression in the second image.
How was Selzner able to achieve such elegant and graceful poses? He clearly kept apace with technical developments that were reducing exposure times, such as the bromine doping of the iodine sensitising solution, and also used Petzval lenses when they became available. It replaced Chevalier’s ‘Photographe a Verres Combine’ that combined two cemented achromats which could be used at apertures of about f/5.6 for portrait work, and, as a bonus, could be converted for use as a landscape lens, though it suffered from a lack of overall sharpness and its speed was still very slow.
Joseph Petzval, Professor of Mathematics at Vienna University, designed a lens that provided for speeds of f/3.6 and had superb sharpness in the center of the image, ideal for portraiture. However this brought unusual effects when used for group portraits, a genre in which Selzner was a pioneer, about the same time as Hill and Adamson were venturing into this difficult field. as when Selzner makes this group portrait in 1843 of the Hamburg artists association (in some handsome top hats!), taken in the garden of their summer residence on the Caffamacherreihe. The bulbous focus effects and softening at the edges increasing toward the corners of this plate…
…when examined with a closer look (below). The curvature of field causing this can be seen in the diagram. The Petzval lens is enjoying a revival amongst contemporary Lomographers who value its bokeh on their nominally ‘low-tech’ or ‘reinvented’ cameras.
Nevertheless, the quality of this group portrait is far in advance of any contemporary football club lineup or school photo. The lessons of Franz Hals, Dutch painter of collective portraits have been absorbed by Selzner, who has clearly directed the lines of sight, and arranged the figures in relation to each other, to direct the eye into the group toward the chap in a top hat who is standing and then down to the fellows examining the portfolio of drawings on the table, while others’ gazes toward the camera invite our attention. No-one dominates amongst this group of like-minded individuals; a remarkable achievement in a group portrait. Here is another he made in the studio, also of a large group, and one also made outside.
Among all of the daguerreotypes produced before the advent of the wet-plate swept it aside, it is rare to see pictures of animals. Slezner’s portrait of his dog stands out as a tribute to his attaining an unusual facility in his medium.
No doubt obedient, Ulla the dog has not moved a muscle during the long exposure, which, even if by 1860 Slezner was achieving high speeds with his lens and by pimping the daguerreotype process, would have still run into tens of seconds. It is quite a feat; only the slightest movement around the collar and end of the nose, due to a dog’s fast breathing, can be discerned.
Poses that are apparently quite spontaneous can be found amongst the portraits. Here is Anna Henriette Stelzner, who was the best friend of Selzner’s first wife Caroline, whom he divorced. Here she is embraced by another friend in a pose unusual for its candour and intimacy.
His vision increasingly impaired as a consequence of working with iodine and mercury, in 1854 Stelzner largely abandoned the poisonous daguerreotype process for images on paper (the calotype), and started to use assistants. By 1862, at fifty-eight, he was almost completely blind and gave up his work, although he would continue to play a role in the artistic life of Hamburg until his death in 1894.