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A Photographic Portrait of Boston, 1840-1865

February 10, 2006 - April 2, 2006


A Photographic Portrait of Boston, 1840-1865 explores the history of Boston in the years before and during the Civil War through a focused survey of images from four major local historic archives: the Boston Athenaeum, the Boston Public Library, Historic New England, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. The exhibition presents over one hundred and forty images -- several important works are presented here publicly for the first time -- and highlights a variety of early photographic formats including daguerreotypes, salt prints, and cartes de visite. Also included are advertisements for various studios and trade cards. Photographers in the exhibition range from the notable teams of Southworth & Hawes and Whipple & Black, to lesser-known yet important photographic pioneers such as Asa White, Lorenzo G. Chase, Edward M. Tyler and others. The photographs are divided into three major groups: Portraits from Life, The City and The Civil War. A 72-page illustrated catalogue, with an essay by Anna Lee Kamplain, exhibition curator and Jan and Warren Adelson Fellow in American Art at Boston University, accompanies the exhibition. (right: Lorenzo G. Chase, Unidentified woman, 1848-1852, Daguerreotype, sixth plate. Collection of Historic New England/SPNEA)

For centuries, artists and viewers conceived of portraits as representations of living persons, especially of the countenance. Once considered an exact likeness, the portrait came to be defined by the subject's expression, by the artist's ability to reveal the sitter's "inner nature." As early as the 1860s, viewers began to recognize that a portrait might reveal many facets of a sitter. A Photographic Portrait of Boston, 1840-1865 provides a composite portrait of Boston in the middle of the nineteenth century and aims to recover a photographic vision of mid-century Bostonians and their city. The exhibition focuses on photographic portraits taken by Boston photographers of Bostonians; it tells not only the tales of those before the camera but also the stories of those behind the camera. Also included are photographic portraits taken during the Civil War (1861-1865), highlighting Boston's role in the distant struggle. In addition to traditional portraits of people, this exhibition includes, under the concept of "portraiture," photographs of Boston landmarks and locations, monuments, parks, and city streets, views not commonly considered portraits. Considering Boston itself as a personality the exhibition encourages an investigation of not only the history of photography in America but also Boston's own history.

From its introduction to the city in 1840, photography rapidly developed and diversified in Boston. A Photographic Portrait of Boston, 1840-1865 looks at early photography in Boston as both a social practice and a technological innovation. Highlighting photographs and photographic ephemera, the exhibition provides the opportunity to reassess this early moment in the development of the photographic medium and to consider its impact on individuals and society. The exhibition uses the particular example of Boston as a means to understand the proliferation of photography regionally and nationally during this important period. Reconsidering the idea of portraiture, the exhibition focuses on photographic portraits of both the people and places of Boston. This expanded focus encourages an evaluation not only of the development of the medium -- its diversity in style and technique -- but also of the socio-economic context in which the images were made. (right: Black & Batchelder, Susan Cabot Richardson, 1861, Carte de visite. Collection of Historic New England/SPNEA, Gift of Mr. Charles F. Batchelder)

Boston experienced great change in the middle of the nineteenth century. The social and cultural transformations that would re-shape the city were the direct result of population growth and demographic shifts. Between 1840 and 1865, the city's population increased by 100,000 inhabitants, from around 93,000 to just over 192,000. The number of Boston's foreign-born residents also increased during these years. In 1855 fifty-three percent of the population was foreign born, and the majority were Irish. The influx of immigrant cultures helped to diversify the city as well as generate new social tensions. The topography of the city also evolved during the 1840s and 1860s, most notably as Boston began to fill in the Back Bay. In 1846 ether was used for the first time in America at Massachusetts General Hospital. The Boston Public Library was established in 1848 as the first publicly supported municipal library in America, and the first public library to lend a book. In the years prior to The Panic of 1857, the city made a number of improvements, including the opening of the Cochituate Water System and the founding of the city's police department. A new music hall, hospital, and city hall opened in Boston in the early 1860s. Boston was a great advocate for the Union during the Civil War, sending approximately 26,000 men to serve in the armed forces. Shipping and manufacturing industries grew during this period, and by 1865 Boston ranked as the fourth manufacturing city in the nation.

The city was also the home of notable politicians, writers, abolitionists, and photographers, including Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court Lemuel Shaw, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Senator and ardent abolitionist Charles Sumner, and the photographers Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes. Achieving a kind of celebrity status of their own, Southworth & Hawes photographed not only the celebrated personalities of their day, but also photographed the individuals and families who could afford the price of a portrait in their upscale studio. Their photographic images continue to construct and preserve those likenesses for both public and private posterity. A Photographic Portrait of Boston, 1840-1865 celebrates their work and the work of their many talented contemporaries.

Over the past three decades, several curators and historians have organized important exhibitions outlining the history of early photography in Boston. These projects have ranged from monographic accounts of single studios to surveys of the development of Boston photography. Together, these exhibitions have enhanced our understanding not only of early photography in the city of Boston but also of the development of the medium in America at large. A Photographic Portrait of Boston, 1840-1865 builds upon this exhibition precedent, highlighting one hundred and forty photographs of Bostonians and their city to provide a multi-faceted portrait of Boston. (right: Josiah Johnson Hawes, House of Dr. Buckminster Brown, 1860, Albumen print. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department)

© 2006 by Trustees of Boston University. All rights reserved.

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