Southworth & Hawes: America’s Masters of the Daguerreotype Portrait

Southworth & Hawes: America’s Masters of the Daguerreotype Portrait

Southworth and Hawes was a partnership that formed at the dawn of photography, and resulted in perhaps some of the most stunning portraits ever made

I take photos of landscapes and old buildings. I find the idea of shooting someone’s portrait to be terrifying. I have no idea how to pose a model or even relate with the sitter in a way to make them comfortable. So, I admire photographers who can elevate portraiture to an art form. And the artists Albert Sands Southworth & Josiah Johnson Hawes were masterful with portraits at a time when the medium of photography was in itself a very difficult task. They were truly among America’s first great photographers.

Documents show that they spent a lot of time practicing, perfecting exposures.

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Introduction of the Daguerreotype process to America

The Daguerreotype process was invented in France by Louis Daguerre in the 1830s and publicly announced 1839. It was really the first viable photographic process, and the results were so sharp and pleasing that Daguerreotypes are considered by many to be the most beautiful photographs ever made, superior even in many ways to even modern digital images.

The process was announced in 1839, and almost immediately it was being promoted in the US by none other than Samuel F.B. Morse, who you may know as the namesake of the Morse code. As it turns out, in addition to helping invent the Morse code and the single wire telegraph system, Samuel Morse was also a highly-regarded portrait artist and teacher. Morse had met Louis Daguerre in Paris in 1839, and came back to the US as a proponent of the new technology.

Daguerre sold his interest in the Daguerreotype to the French government in exchange for a lifetime pension, and the French government bestowed the process on the world as a gift. Alphonse Giroux & Cie was a camera manufacturing company that sent François Gouraud to the US as their agent. Gouraud sold the first Daguerreotype camera in the US to a Bostonian named Samuel Bemis, and later sold a camera to Morse.

A group of people gathered in New York, eager to learn the new Daguerreotype process, and before long, Morse opened a studio and began teaching students. Among his students were Mathew Brady — who gained reknown as a battlefield photographer during the American Civil War — but another student was a man named Albert Southworth.

It’s possible you’ve heard of Mathew Brady or seen his work, but unless you’re a real photo nerd, you probably haven’t heard of Southworth, which is a shame because he was half of one of the most brilliant photo studios in American history.

America at the time was a vigorous young nation with a growing sense of itself. Boston was the second largest city after New York, known as the “Athens of America” because of its status as a center of education, literature, and technology. The railroad had already transformed the nation, and when photography was introduced by Gouraud, it was quickly absorbed into practice in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia (Young America – Eastman).

If the Daguerreotype was one of the finest photographic processes in history, Southworth and Hawes made some of the finest examples in the medium. Their brilliant use of light, avoidance of the typical contrived poses, and attention to the individual personality of the subject brought incredible results and earned the studio a loyal following among some of the most prominent Americans of the day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Quincy Adams, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others like commodores and socialites. They even shot a portrait of Texas hero Sam Houston.

But before we really dig into the work of Southworth and Hawes, this might be a good time to explain what a Daguerreoype. As I mentioned before, the photographs themselves are considered among the sharpest and most beautiful photographs ever made — even to this day. They are among the most prized by collectors for their unparalleled beauty.

What is a Daguerreotype?

Daguerreotypes were popular as a photographic process from 1839 until about 1860, when they were surpassed by negative based prints on paper, like the albumen print.

Every Daguerreotype photograph was a direct positive original — in other words, the final image was the one made inside the camera. There was no negative, and therefore no way to make reproductions.  Daguerreotypes were imaged onto highly polished metal, so polished that they were shiny and reflective just like a mirror. The metal was usually a piece of copper coated with a thin layer of silver. Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, and tintypes were often packaged in cases and can be difficult to tell apart — but a Daguerreotype is distinguished by the fact that it looks like it’s printed onto a mirror. One auction site says that Daguerreotypes give an almost holographic impression when viewed from an angle. Ambrotypes were printed onto glass, and backed by a black paper to make the image visible. Tintypes were printed into a thin emulsion onto the surface of a thin sheet of iron (not tin), and were often cut down from larger sheets, giving them an irregular edge. Unlike Daguerreotypes, tintype prints were not as fragile and delicate and didn’t necessarily require the decorative outer cases.

How Daguerreotype plates were made

The reason Daguerreotypes are so fragile is in the way they are made light sensitive. First of all, the silver-plated surface had to be buffed and cleaned just prior to use to remove any tarnish or oils. A system of various materials were used, ending with a wipe of nitric acid to remove any remaining organic material.

Then under safelight conditions, the silver plate was exposed to chemical fumes, usually halogen, to form a silver halide emulsion on the plate. As you can imagine, fumes create only a surface layer, not an embedded layer, and are therefore extremely easy to scuff or smear.

The sensitized plate was then inserted into a plate holder with a dark slide for carrying to the camera. Once the dark slide was pulled and the lens cap was removed from the front of the lens, the sensitized plate was exposed to direct light. The exposure time could run from several seconds to many minutes, depending on the type of chemicals used, the brightness of the light, and the quality of the lens.

At the end of the exposure, the lens cap was returned and the dark slide slipped back into the front of the plate, so it could be carried back to the darkroom for development. At this stage, the polished and fumed plate contains an invisible latent image.

To develop the image, the plate was placed into a special developing box where it was exposed to more fumes, this time heated mercury fumes. So at this point, we can see that this is not the safest or most environmentally friendly process! Imagine being locked up in a light-tight darkroom with the fumes of heated mercury.

To stop development, the plate was doused in a solution of sodium thiosulfate, and sometimes an additional treatment of heated gold chloride was used to warm the gray tones and provide additional durability to the surface. One source said without this step, the surface would be as “delicate as the dust on a butterfly’s wing.”( Wikipedia )

Since the exposure was made direct to the plate with no intermediate negative, it is a flipped or reversed image of the subject. In other words, it appears backwards.

Southworth’s own description of how a daguerreotype plate is made

Now that I’ve given you my description, here is a direct quote from Southworth himself about the process, copied from a web archive version of the George Eastman House website:

“Daguerreotypes are made upon a surface of silver, plated on a body of copper, about the thickness of a half-dime. When the plate is polished smooth and clean, it becomes a blackground or black board [by reflection] upon which to make the picture. In a dark room it receives upon its surface by evaporation a compound of Iodine, Bromine and Chlorine, forming an even and perfect [light-sensitive] coating. The first light admitted to the coated plate is the desired image made by the light in the Camera Obscura. The light affects the combined elements composing the surface instantaneously, and in exact proportion to the amount admitted. The plate is then placed over a box containing a moderately heated cup of quicksilver [metallic mercury]. The vapor of the quicksilver passes readily through the compound surface of the plate just in proportion to the light acted upon it, and becomes attached to, or amalgamated with the silver. This forms the lights of the picture, and is the white chalk upon the blackboard. The time of the exposure of the plate to the coating, to the image of light, and to the mercury, can only be learned by actual experiments. After the picture is fully developed, it is immersed in a solution of hyposulphite of soda, which does not affect the mercury or black-ground but removes the compound coating. It is then submitted to a process [in a heated bath of gold-chloride] whereby the whole surface of the plate is coated with a leaf of pure gold, which protects it as a varnish does a painting [the plate is then washed and dried]. To secure Daguerreotypes from injury, they are sealed under glass, with a border between, to prevent the glass from resting upon, or chafing them [and are then placed into cases or frames].”

How Southworth met Hawes

Albert Southworth was a well-to-do pharmacist when he went to New York to learn the Daguerreotype process from Samuel Morse. He partnered with Morse’s assistant Joseph Pennell — who he had already known because they were roommates in preparatory school — to open the studio in Boston. Pennell left in about a year, and in 1843 a carpenter and painter named Josiah Johnson Hawes joined the business, and the celebrated studio of Southworth & Hawes was launched. 

Southworth’s sister Nancy joined the firm to apply hand coloring, and married Hawes 8 years later — no quick worker that Hawes — but he did eventually get the girl.

About the Southworth & Hawes studio

They located the studio in a space on the top floor of a building in Boston with a lot of skylights, which provided tons of natural light, diffused by curtains. Remember, this was the 1840s — there was no such thing as flash or artificial light for photography — in fact, photography was a new profession having only been invented a few years earlier.

The big skylights allowed for relatively short exposure times of 8 to 12 seconds — still long enough that they had to use those stabilizing neck braces to keep people from moving during the exposure and creating blur. For children who are naturally fidgety, they pulled back the curtains and sacrificed artsiness for shorter exposure times — about 1 to 5 seconds (Young America: Eastman)

Ads for the studio show them located at 5-1/2 Tremont Row, which was a popular vicinity for prominent creative businesses of the era — they positioned themselves in a trendy location — perfect for impressing their high-impact clientele and presenting themselves as artists. Tremont Row was renamed in the 1920s to Scollay Square. The entire neighborhood was torn down in the 1950s, with the razing of 1,000 buildings and the removal of 20,000 residents. It was replaced with office buildings in a development called Government Center.

Circa 1895 map of Boston showing the location of the now defunct Tremont Row. Southworth and Hawes were located at 5-1/2 Tremont Row
Circa 1895 map of Boston showing the location of the now defunct Tremont Row. Southworth and Hawes were located at 5-1/2 Tremont Row

The Letter, ca 1850, by Southworth & Hawes

For the next 19 years the duo earned praise for their artistic abilities and technical skills. There’s one particular example I want to talk about, which shows their genius as portrait artists.On the National Gallery of Art website there’s a photograph called “The Letter.”

While most studios cranked out standard head-and-shoulders portraits as quickly as possible to earn a profit, Southworth & Hawes made extraordinary images like this one. In the most glorious range of tones you can imagine, we see a room with an out of focus chair along one side, and a small table on the other. On the floor, we see two young women sitting close together forming a triangular shape — sisters perhaps? Most likely but their identities are unknown.

One woman, looking out of the frame as though in deep contemplation, holds an unfolded letter on her lap — The white paper contrasts against her dark dress typical of the era — The Letter was made in 1850. It’s a whole plate, 8 inches by 6 inches. The other woman sits close, literally leaning on the shoulder of the other — her quiet gaze also away from us, but not in the same direction as her friend. Her dress is lighter in color. She wears a shawl around her slim shoulders. Both women have their hair pulled up and back, in tight and tidy buns like you usually see in women of that time period in photographs.

The mood is palpable — they are both seemingly deep in thought over the contents of the letter. Maybe they’re daydreaming. Maybe they’re wistful. Their faces really don’t betray their moods — not happy or sad — just quiet and thoughtful. The fabric of their dresses is so lustrous you can almost imagine the rustling sound as they sat down to strike their poses.

You can use a viewer on the NGA website to closely examine the image. The detail is stunning. You can see the details in their garments. The second girl is wearing jewelry and you can really zoom in to see the details — big dangling earrings and an ornate heart pendant on a chain around her neck. Looking at this portrait, I want to know more about these women. What became of them? How did their lives turn out?

The National Gallery provides the provenance of this photograph. It was in possession of Josiah Hawes until his death in 1901. Then it passed to his son and daughters until 1934. It was in possession of the Holman Print Shop in Boston, in the early 1940s. It was then privately owned until sold by Sotheby’s in New York on April 27 1999. It was owned by Charles Isaacs Photographs (a dealer in vintage photography) until purchased by the National Gallery of Art in 1999.

The Letter, a daguerreotype whole plate print by Southworth & Hawes circa 1850
The Letter, a daguerreotype whole plate print by Southworth & Hawes circa 1850

Daguerreotypes were shot in standard sizes created from what were described as whole plates, half plates, quarter plates, etc., based on the sizes of the available polished plates. Southworth & Hawes often worked in the whole plate format, which was about 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches. 

In addition to portraits of notables of the day, Southworth & Hawes made portraits of people who were not famous or influential, and they made post mortem photographs, and photographs of cemeteries and tombs. They also made a series of photographs called “The Death of Pain,” documenting the first known applications of anesthesia in surgical procedures in the US. Although at least some of the photographs are re-enactments — it seems our man Hawes was too squeamish for the blood and gore of actual medical procedures and I don’t blame him.

Early Operation Using Ether for Anesthesia, by Southworth & Hawes, from the Death of Pain series, courtesy of The Getty Museum.
Early Operation Using Ether for Anesthesia, 1947 by Southworth & Hawes, from the Death of Pain series, courtesy of The Getty Museum.

Permanence of Daguerreotypes

As with all aspects of their work, Southworth & Hawes were meticulous in their care to guarantee quality and longevity of their work. A web-archived version of the George Eastman House website contains some quotes about their attention to customer concerns about permanence.

The first comes from an advertisement: “We coat all of our pictures with a perfect leaf of pure California Gold and so seldom is it that our Miniatures have ever shown any defect, that we warrant them all. We never know any daguerreotype properly freed from the chemicals and kept so, to change or fade.”

The Eastman website quotes Southworth to have said this about the permanence:

“It is important for everyone to understand whether daguerreotypes are permanent and what is necessary for their preservation against accidents. ‘Will daguerreotypes fade?’ is a question asked constantly by visitors to the exhibition gallery, and our answer is, ‘they will not.’ Our reason for such an answer is, first, that the material of the picture when finished is purely metallic, and not liable or subject to evaporation. It is not affected by heat, unless artificial and sufficient to destroy any painting . . . Every person should remember that so highly a polished surface of silver or gold as a daguerreotype plate cannot be touched in any manner, with anything whatever, without soiling or scratching it . . . The earlier daguerreotypes were not gilded, and many of great value have been entirely effaced by being ‘very carefully cleaned’ with a silk handkerchief. . . It may occasionally happen that spots will appear through some cavity or perforation in the silver. . . These, though blemishes, will not often injure the likeness, and will appear but seldom if the artist uses electrotype plates.”

Thanks to that level of care, a huge number of Southworth & Hawes Daguerreotypes survive in excellent condition.

The studio charged high fees because of their exacting standards, their use of large plates, and the fact that they made multiple shots of each sitter. Those multiple shots were kept in the studio’s possession and also contributed to the large number of surviving examples of their work.

The end of Southworth & Hawes

The partnership between Southworth and Hawes lasted for the duration of the use of daguerreotypes, and dissolved in 1862 or 1863, depending on which source you read. With Hawes being a brother-in-law, clearly the men were more than business partners.

Southworth left the business for a short period in the early 1850s to go off to California to speculate for gold. He came back in poor health, but the business had been maintained by Josiah Hawes and Nancy, and it seems Southworth moved right back into the business.

Aware that times were changing, they also made albumen prints — many of the cityscapes of Boston are in fact albumen prints made from wet collodion negatives. 

But even as the technologies changed and time marched on, Hawes in particular lamented the passing of the Daguerreotype. He is quoted as saying this: “Although the process has become obsolete… all experts agree that no other process can render objects, viz., the human face, with such fidelity and beauty.”

After splitting, Southworth became a lecturer and Hawes continued in business as the J.J. Hawes Company in the same studio space until his death in 1901. He left a vast archive of images to his children.

George Eastman House, which holds 1,200 Southworth & Hawes Daguerreotypes, maintains a spectacular collection of their images on flickr.

Eastman also holds an extensive collection of the company’s papers and records at the museum in Rochester, New York. The documents include daily ledgers and records, tax documents, information about their sale and distribution of photographic supplies to other photographers, and even letters and documents containing family gossip. This material is carefully protected and only accessible to scholars and researchers, but maybe some day the museum will provide it online.

Thanks for reading.

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~ Keith


Alamy, “Albert Sands Southworth”

Center for Artifact Studies, Photograph Identification Guide, “Tintypes, Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes,” David Rudd Cycleback

Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Southworth & Hawes”

George Eastman House photos of Southworth and Hawes

George Eastman House, “Guide to the Southworth & Hawes Records” (PDF)

Historic Camera, “Francois Gouraud”

International Center of Photography, “Southworth & Hawes: Permanence” Accessed via Web Archive

International Center of Photography, “Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes,” Accessed via Web Archive

National Gallery of Art, Southworth and Hawes, “The Letter, ca. 1850”

Skinner, “How to Identify a Daguerreotype: 5 Considerations When Looking at Early Photography”

Wikipedia, “Daguerreotype”

Wikipedia, “François Fauvel Gouraud”

Wikipedia, “Photography in the United States”

Wikipedia, “Samuel Morse”

Wikipedia, “Scollay Square”

Wikipedia, “Tremont Row”

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