The American Daguerre - John Plumbe

The American Daguerre - John Plumbe

Imagine pursuing your dream but lacking the funds to do so, then coming across a technology so amazing that you see the opportunity to establish a new business as a market leader, creating a chain of branches. John Plumbe, the Daguerreotype portraitist, did just this in 1840 which led to some of the most enduring photos of Washington D.C.

John Plumbe was a Welsh civil engineer who emigrated to the USA in 1821 as a young 12-year-old and was a passionate visionary for the empowering impact of the railroad on the growth of the fledgling nation. As Barbara Natanson (Head of Reference for the Prints Division at the Library of Congress) explains, Plumbe petitioned Congress on several occasions for the construction of a transcontinental railroad and secured initial funding to survey a route. That funding was not renewed and, short on money, he looked for other means to support his vision for the railroad.

He turned out to be the right person in the right place at the right time. Plumbe comments that he "took up photography in 1840 after seeing the work of an itinerant daguerreotypist in Washington, D.C." Look at that date again - 1840. The Dagerreotype wasn't made public until August 1839, being gifted to the world patent-free by the French government (although, in a strange twist of fate, a patent was lodged in the UK prior to this meaning that a license fee was payable there). The spread of ideas in the mid-1800s was fast. Not only did Plumbe hear of and see a working daguerreotypist, but envisaged the potential of photography establishing a network of 27 working studios that would take portraits as well as selling pictures and offering training. He also submitted several patents related to the Daguerre process and is thought to be the first photographer to franchise his studios.

So what of his photography? Well, the Library of Congress holds a number of photos from his collection and, as was typical both of the time and of his business, they are dominated by portraits. It's his architectural photos that are perhaps of most interest for three reasons.

Firstly, they are buildings (doh!). This highlights the general truth that being first to do something is often better than being second and particularly so when taking photos. He took one of the earliest (and possibly the earliest) photos of buildings in Washington D.C. in the period 1844 - 1846, including the Capitol Building and the White House. They make fascinating viewing for that fact alone.

Then there's the historical imperative. The photograph is a "faithful" record of what is visible in two dimensions, marking an instant in time. So for the Capitol Building, not only was this likely the first photo of it, but it records the status of construction as of ~1845. Started in 1793, initial building work was completed with the Senate in 1800 and the House in 1811. However, it was the 1850s that saw large expansion with two new wings and the dome. Plumbe's photo pre-dates this and provides important historical context. It is classically composed seeking to highlight the grandeur of the building from an elevated perspective, playing on the symmetry.

Finally, there is the technical. Daguerreotypes were new technology where the product was labor intensive and suffered from a range of limitations such as low dynamic range and, of course, slow exposure times. That means minutes. Many minutes. Many many minutes! However, they are remarkable for their incredible detail. Again, the 25MP TIF of the Capitol Building show's an amazing amount of information when you consider that it is a photograph of a low contrast glass plate.

This is a photo that has placed a firm marker in history for a number of very good reasons. It will stand the test of time and live long in the collective memory. Sadly Plumbe hit financial troubles in the late 1840s, selling the studios to his franchisees. He never got to see his transcontinental railroad, committing suicide in 1857 before construction work ever began.

Images in the Public Domain and courtesy of the Library of Congress

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