December 28: Today being my birthday, please indulge me as I riff off the meanings of ‘present’ and ‘presence’.
I received a gift from my ever-thoughtful partner Lorena that I’ve been longing for; a daguerreotype. Though we were hoping she might pick one up whilst recently overseas in France and Ireland photographing for upcoming illustration commissions, and giving a workshop at a writer’s retreat, dealers in daguerreotypes proved too hard to find, so instead she purchased one online from France.
My beautiful present is most likely French, and so would date from the period in which the medium predominated there during 1839–55 (Americans made daguerreotypes until after 1860), making it at least 164 years old.
Its subject though, remains much younger…she could easily pass in looks and age for my youngest daughter at fourteen…but is certainly not yet in her twenties. She is wearing a carefully fitted, layered and pleated black crepe mourning dress with tiered sleeves and wasp waist. It’s a style found even in Australia and America in the 1840s–1850s, so that alone does not confirm the provenance of the image. Her sad expression is in keeping, but its accompanying bewilderment conveys an emotion deeply felt, so perhaps the deceased was a close relative.
Her hands hold each other in a defensive gesture and like her cheeks, they are tinted pink; looking at them, rendered at a mere centimetre on the sixth-plate (7cm x 8.89cm or 2 ¾ x 3 ¼″) image, one can see that they and the visible white nails are unblemished by hard work.
In its case, surrounded by a pebbled gold foil oval mat, the image is holographic in appearance, so reminds us that it is the actual silver-plated copper plate, a mere 0.4 mm thick, the one placed in the camera, that we are looking at; a one-off, unique image.
Viewing it and turning it in the light to transform it from a blank mirror reflecting my face, to a negative, and to a positive, I become conscious of a palpable sense of presence—an immanence that is uniquely ‘daguerrian’ (though in ‘conjuring’ its subject, it is the precursor of the fabled video-phone, finally manifested in Skype etc.). It is an inherent quality that is absent from the multiply reproducible negative/positive process and product developed by Talbot and Bayard. It is not a copy of anything but what was projected through the lens; the sad girl sitting patiently before the camera. A part of her very substance is embedded in the image, one feels.
But there is also an absence that we can see reflected in the girl’s eyes; that of the departed loved one. This picture transmits a sense of loss that I find connecting France with Australia as recorded in the book Lettres reçues d’Océanie par l’administration générale des pères maristes pendant le généralat de Jean-Claude Colin: 1851-1852. Written by the first Marist missionaries to work in the western Pacific and sent back to the general administration of the Marist Fathers, based in Lyons, France, these are the plaintive messages of separated partners and friends, joined only by the virtual presence in the daguerrean likeness:
Despite the pleasure that I would have to see you again, there is one thing that would make me almost dread such a meeting; the reproach with which you would berate me for having delayed so long to write to you. You know, however, that the good Lord willingly forgives repentant sinners; I hope that it will be the same for you in relation to me, since I repent, and really I am not guilty of having forgotten you; but of not writing to you. Even had I wanted to forget you I could not have done it, because the portrait which you were kind enough to send me is every day before my eyes to remind me of your true features and the kindnesses without number that you bestowed on me during my stay in Toulon. There are several people here who have their daguerreotype portraits; but yours is always the best, which proves to you that I have it in my hands, and that it would therefore be very difficult for me not to think of the original.
I have recently read a collection of essays in Photography and other media in the nineteenth century. I’ll review the book in due course, but let me point out a notable feature; the essays come in pairs dealing with much the same subject, effectively giving a ‘stereoscopic’ view.
Such is the case with Simone Natale‘s ‘A mirror with wings : photography and the new era of communications’, and ‘The traveling daguerreotype : early photography and the U.S. postal system’ by David M. Henkin both covering the way that the daguerreotype, beside contemporary technologies in America, collapsed space. Of the two, it is Henkin who employs the evidence from the letters that, as the cost of sending them decreased, increased in their inclusion of photographs, usually portraits of loved ones.
Henkin recounts how when J. H. Williams received his son’s picture he rated it “as good as a short visit.”
In her letters of 1849, Sabrina Swain of Ohio whose husband had gone prospecting in California, likewise thought she “never saw anything but life look more natural;”
Sunday evening, April 15, 1849
Dear, dear William, I want very much to describe my feelings as near as I can , but in doing so I hope not to crucify yours. I feel as though I was alone in the world . The night you left home I did not, nor could not, close my eyes to sleep. Sis slept very well, awoke in the morning, and looked over at me seemingly to welcome a spree with her father, but to her disappointment the looked-for one was absent. She appears very lonesome, and seems to miss you very much. She is very troublesome and will not go to anyone , but cries after me and clings to me more than ever.
I received your daguerrian …. I think I never saw anything but life look more natural. I showed it to Little Cub, and to my astonishment and pleasure she appeared to recognize it. She put her finger on it, looked up at me and laughed, put her face down to yours, and kissed it several times in succession. Every time it comes in her sight she will cry after it.
William, if I had known that I could not be more reconciled to your absence than I am, I never could have consented to your going . However, I will try to reconcile myself as well as I can, believing God will order all things for the best.
Henkin provides several other illustrations. “Thanks to the inventer [sic] who brings yourself in imagination present with me,” a Jonathan Locke wrote to his wife in 1850, while a miner apologised to his sweetheart that “I am only sorry that it is not the original that is to go and the likeness to remain,” while his fiancee received the portrait with “unexpected joy” observing that her absent beloved “could have sent-nothing but yourself that would have been half so acceptable.” Another told his wife that he stared at her likeness “generally when I go to bed and when I rise. . . . I enjoy looking at you much.”
I too thank my partner for such a gift. Through the aged image-object, a unique specimen of a superseded technology, I can meditate on the life of its subject and the tangible medium through which she still exists.