Posts Tagged ‘daguerreotypes New York City’

The man in one of New York’s oldest photos

March 9, 2020

He’s young, handsome, and decked out in a formal suit coat with what looks like a tie. This daguerrotype portrait of him dates back to 1840, just as daguerrotype photography was introduced to America.

Who is he? His identity may be lost to the ages.

But we do know who took the photo: Samuel F.B. Morse (below, years later as an older man), who would be credited with inventing the telegraph in 1844.

Before sending the first telegraph message, Morse was a painter and professor of art at the new University of the City of New York—later to be renamed New York University.

While studying in Europe, he met Louis Daguerre and learned his process for capturing images.

After returning to the US in 1839, Morse set up a studio on the roof of the Old University Building on Washington Square with John William Draper, a chemistry professor also interested in Daguerre’s process. (Draper created this portrait of his sister in the studio in 1840.)

In this studio, Morse “received many students who paid him to teach them the new daguerreotype process,” states the Library of Congress. (Mathew Brady, the famed Civil War photographer who would launch his first studio on Broadway in 1844, was one.)

Perhaps the young man in the image was an earnest daguerrotype student. Maybe he’s the scion of an old money family and wanted a selfie. Or he could be an NYU kid recruited as a model because of his good looks.

Whoever he is, he’s the subject of one of the earliest photographic images ever taken in New York City.

“This simple portrait of an unknown sitter, who clearly strains to keep his eyes open during the long, twenty-to-thirty minute exposure, is the only extant daguerreotype by Morse and one of the earliest photographs made in America,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has it in its collection.

“The strength of the portrait is in the young man’s rapt expression, which seems to reflect a subtle awareness of his participation in a grand endeavor. The mindful sitter is one of the first in photography to return the gaze of the viewer.”

[Top and middle images: Metmuseum.org]

The oldest photo ever taken of New York City

November 16, 2012

It looks more like a Southern plantation mansion than a house in Manhattan.

But historians believe this daguerreotype shows a private home and country-like white sloping fence on Bloomingdale Road, once a main thoroughfare extending from Broadway on today’s Upper West Side.

The daguerreotype is thought to date to October 1848 or earlier (that’s just a few generations before the Dakota came along!), making it the oldest known photographic image of New York City.

Found in New England, the image was traced to Manhattan with the help of a curiously written note tucked behind the daguerreotype plate, wrote Jennifer 8. Lee in a 2009 New York Times article:

“This view, was taken at too great a distance, & from ground 60 or 70 feet lower than the building; rendering the lower Story of the House, & the front Portico entirely invisible. (the handsomest part of the House.) The main road, passes between the two Post & rail fences. (called, a continuation of Broadway 60 feet wide.) It requires a maganifying glass, to clearly distinguish the Evergreens, within the circular enclosure, taken the last of October, when nearly half of the leaves were off the trees.
—May 1849. L. B.”

It was sold by Sotheby’s for $62,500 in 2009—a fascinating glimpse of a pre-urbanized Upper West Side.

Chatham Square: home to the city’s whorearchy

February 16, 2012

In the 1820s, it was an open-air market for horses and dry goods bordering a genteel neighborhood of row houses (as seen here, in an illustration looking back on 1812).

By the 1850s, Chatham Square was kind of the Times Square of its day, a seedy district of flophouses, taverns, cheap merchants, and the city’s first tattoo parlors on the outskirts of the East Side’s notorious Five Points slum.

How seedy was it? Describing the prostitution rampant there in his book City of Eros, Timothy J. Gilfoyle writes:

“Along its western edge, the Bowery and Chatham Square were a bourse of sex. The patrician George Templeton Strong claimed that after nightfall, amid the theaters, saloons, dance halls, and cheap lodging houses, the thoroughfare overflowed with ‘members of the whorearchy in most slatternly deshabille.’

“Once elegant eighteenth-century residences like that of the merchant Edward Mooney at 18 Bowery now served as brothels.”

Like everything in New York, the red-light districts change as well. Prohibition, the Depression, a growing Chinatown, and slum clearance all remade Chatham Square into a messy but not sleazy intersection off the Bowery.

It’s now known as Kimlau Square, which honors American servicemen of Chinese ancestry who died for their country.

[Above photo: an 1853 Daguerreotype of Chatham Street, now Park Row, looking toward the Square]