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    Return to Article Listing. KUNST UND MAGIE: DER DAGUERREOTYPE

By Matt Damsker


Images from the collection of W. + T. Bosshard. By Rene Perret, preface by Martin Gasser. $65, hardcover; 248 pages; 230 color plates. Published by BEA + Pil-Verlags, AG, Brugg 2006. ISBN No. 3-905277-52-8. Distributed in the U.S. by Carl Mautz Vintage Photography & Publishing, 329 Bridge Way, Nevada City, CA 95959; phone: 1-530-478-1610; fax: 1-530 478 0466; email: cmautz@carlmautz.com .

This exceptional volume accompanied the recent exhibition "Light Traces: Daguerreotypes from Swiss Collections 1840-1860" at the Fotostiftung Schweiz in Winturthur. It is a strong work of scholarship on the part of Rene Perret, who calls on more than 200 rare daguerreotypes (from one of Europe's leading collections, that of W. + T. Bosshard) in documenting the history and technology of Daguerre's pioneering process.

More impressive than Perret's chronicle, though, is the quality of the book's reproductions--these high-gloss laminate plates seem about at close as a book can come to letting us hold these precious daguerreotypes in one's hand and tilting them to the light. Indeed, the sheen and detail of these 19th-century images is remarkable, and extends to the often ornate details of their framing, while the range of subject matter runs the gamut. There is a wealth of family portraiture, charming portraits of children, stereo images, military images, still lifes, landscape and architectural studies, travel photography of ancient ruins, and several examples of artistically posed female nudes by the likes of Auguste Belloc, Alexis Gouin, and others.

The historical value of these images is a given, while the history they document is often powerful. An anonymous photo of Cardinal Louis-Jacques-Maurice de Bonald is a rare depiction of an important European cleric whose life touched the 18th and 19th centuries, while Heinrich and Wilhelm Schneider's stereo portrait of the crown prince who would become Kaiser Friedrich III is a classic. And images of such landmarks as the Pantheon in Paris or the great domes of Berlin are classically composed studies of grand architecture.

Inasmuch as these European collections tilt heavily toward European subjects, there are several superb examples from America, not least of which is a large anonymous image of prospectors in California during the gold rush of 1849. The sheer epic scale of this daguerreotype presages the panoramic photography of the 20th century, as the gold diggers are dwarfed by the unearthed landscape of massive tree stumps and debris scattered throughout the enormous pit they have dug for profit. This is just the sort of image--multi-layered, pulsating with human endeavor, energy, hopes and dreams, an astonishing depth of field, and inexhaustible detail--that we don't expect from a daguerreotype (it's more the postmodern province of an Andreas Gursky or Sebastiao Salgado, in fact). And yet here it is--and, like so many of the treasures in this book, it's a revelation.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.