Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
“Sights Once Seen: Daguerreotyping Fremont’s Last Expedition Through the Rockies”
At the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum to March 31
Robert Shlaer is a man fascinated by lost causes. For one thing, the Ph.D.’d neurophysiologist gave up his scientific career to specialize in the obsolete medium of daguerreotypya move that, in the 21st century, is akin to becoming a telegraph operator or a leech bleeder. For another, Shlaer has devoted much of his time in this new vocation to retracing one of America’s most obscure westward expeditions: John Charles Fremont’s 1853-1854 trek from Kansas City, Mo., to southwestern Utah.
Fremontrich and famous for previous Western explorations, but by then 40 and somewhat preoccupied by domestic and political life in Californiaundertook his fifth and final expedition during the winter of 1853, to gauge the feasibility of a “middle” railroad route through the Rocky Mountains. The venture ended ignominiously, with his men collapsing from exhaustion at a small Mormon outpost.
The journey would be of little artistic interest had Fremont not brought along a daguerreotypist, Solomon N. Carvalho. Hiring a photographer of this type for such an expedition was an unusual decision indeed. Almost from the day of its invention, in 1839, daguerreotypy had serviced ordinary people who couldn’t afford painted family portraits. The demand for portraits had helped create such a well-defined niche for the medium that in its heyday, daguerreotypists had enough of a commercial portraiture business to enable them to forgo other subject matter. But by the time the business petered out, in the 1850s, competing photographic techniques had largely filled in the gaps.
Thus, even before Fremont left on his fifth expedition, several famous exploration parties had returned from Egypt and Africa with reams of waxed-paper and wet collodion negatives. Unlike daguerreotypes, which were printed directly onto small silver plates without the use of a negative, these could be enlarged into outsized prints that plainly communicated the grand sweep of the landscape. Moreover, photography-savvy explorers knew that the strength of daguerreotypestheir fabled degree of close-up detail, which is so obvious in mid-19th-century portraitswould have been wasted on distant natural forms. Landscape daguerreotyping was nearly as obsolete in Carvalho’s time as it is in Shlaer’s.
In creating the pieces on view in “Sights Once Seen: Daguerreotyping Fremont’s Last Expedition Through the Rockies,” all made between 1994 and 1998, Shlaer forswore all modern shortcuts. Except for using a 30-foot-long pipe to vent the highly toxic mercury vapors used in developing, he stuck to the old and forbiddingly complex recipe for making daguerreotypes, and the success of many works in the exhibition is inevitably tied to the strengths and weaknesses of the process. If you put your nose right up to Stone Building, Pottawatomie Baptist Mission, for instance, you can marvel at how an image so smallonly about 3 by 4 inchescan so clearly capture the outline of individual bricks that form the wall of a building. Similarly, the view of land, water, and knobby trees in At the Mouth of the Huerfano River is so delicately rendered that it could easily pass for a Victorian engraving.
On the other hand, the petite dimensions of the daguerreotype, so useful in the 19th century for creating images of loved ones that could be carried in purses or stood on nightstands, are sometimes crippling when applied to the sights along the Fremont trail. The birds in Snowy Egrets, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Refuge, for example, are too small and too widely dispersed to make much of a visual impact. And Shlaer’s many mountain views are often so similar that they blend together into redundancy. Despite such artistic obstacles, Shlaer managed to produce 101 images, which he encased in metal-and-felt picture frames that mimic the look of vintage daguerreotype cases.
An arguably greater challenge for Shlaer was figuring out what exactly Carvalho had photographed: All but 34 of the artist’s original daguerreotypes had been destroyed in a warehouse fire. Wherever possible, Shlaer worked from a series of engravings that had been abstracted from the daguerreotypes after the expedition returned east. These engravings, however, are only partially reliable; the engravers are believed to have changed features here and there for technical or artistic reasons. And to re-create the many daguerreotypes that were never made into engravings at all, Shlaer had to extrapolate from the explorers’ journal entries.
Superficially, “Sights Once Seen” would seem to fall into the burgeoning genre of “rephotography”the practice of taking new photographs of locations that had been first documented decades earlier. The rephotographic movement actually began in the ’70s, when members of a group called the Rephotographic Survey Project sought to update the views captured by such early chroniclers of the American West as William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan. However, the idea has blossomed anew over the past few years. In 1999, nature and landscape photographer John Fielder published a book that re-created photographs taken by Jackson in 1870s Colorado. In 2001, Daniel Quesney reproduced photos of Versailles and other formal gardens near Paris that had been taken by the famed French photographer Eugène Atget in the ’20s. And last year, South Dakotans Paul Horsted and Ernest Grafe published Exploring With Custer, which includes new photographs of sites visited by George Armstrong Custer’s Black Hills expedition of 1874.
The closer one looks, however, the more Shlaer’s project seems to deviate from such rephotographic quests. Whereas the RSP group and its followers have been excruciatingly precise about their photographic re-creations, Shlaer either had to guess about what Fremont’s original photographs looked like (in one caption, he baldly speculates that Fremont’s men “might have come across these Indian pictographs in Black Dragon Wash”) or else veered far off Fremont’s actual trail to find usable material, as he did in seeking to document the kind of prairie fire he knew Carvalho had witnessed. Equally important, Shlaer’s work, unlike the other rephotographers’, can present no direct contrast with the original photographs, so the viewer has no opportunity to gauge modern intrusions or the comparative level of forestation.
But if “Sights Once Seen” is a failure when measured by rephotographic standards, it is a distinct success when judged within the context of another rising trend in contemporary photography: what author Lyle Rexer has called “photography’s antiquarian avant-garde.” Rexer’s 2002 book by that title surveys modern-day artists who work in obsolete photographic processes. Sometimes they do so for fun: Neo-retro photographer Stephen Berkman, for example, made a 2000 piece that looks like a fusty old portrait of two 1850s menexcept for the presence of an alien with a silver spacesuit, a pair of antennae, and three fingers on each hand. More frequently, however, the New Antiquarians utilize long-forgotten techniques to experiment with different visual textures or to reduce photography to its essential elements. “For all the artists illustrated,” Rexer writes, “stepping into the past is a way to reimagine and redirect not only the photographic object, but the very act of photography itself.”
Shlaer boldly reinvents daguerreotypy, offering scenes that could have been captured by 19th-century daguerreotypists, but, for reasons of artistic habit, almost never wereor, in Carvalho’s case, were captured and lost. Some images, such as The Cliffs of High Mesa, render textured rock faces as if they had been carefully crosshatched by a sketch artist. Others, such as Thunderstorm Over Cliffs, West Fork, Cimarron River, which contrasts a seemingly endless pine forest captured in glorious, fine-grained detail with an undifferentiated mass of gathering storm clouds, display a very modern sense of abstraction.
Shlaer’s starkly geometrical compositions are also striking, especially given the almost total lack of nonrepresentational imagery in vintage daguerreotypes. Divide Between Walnut Creek & Pawnee Fork offers a simple duality of sky and land, captured sensuously, as if by a skilled watercolorist. Prairie Fire, Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Pawhuska, OK, one of Shlaer’s finest images, begins with this same bifurcated horizon but inserts a turbulent cloud of smoke. Shlaer is also gifted at portraying water: In such images as Gunnison River Flowing Past Dominguez Rim, it possesses a surface so silvery that it could be rendered only as a daguerreotype.
But perhaps the most remarkable element of Shlaer’s daguerreotypes is their coloration. In the 1800s, daguerreotypes could be hand-colored with dyes after they were printed. Otherwise, they presented images in shades of black, gray, and silver. Shlaer’s daguerreotypes, however, often feature mysterious tones of sepia and blue. Solid objects such as trees often seem surrounded by ethereal halos; clear parts of the sky appear blank, while adjacent clouds take on a wispy bluish sheen. Images such as Mom, Pop and Henry (Natural Obelisks) offer appealing contrasts between beige stones, an icy blue sky, and a modest dusting of white snow. What such daguerreotypes lack in size, they more than make up for in drama.
Even so, RSPers and their acolytes would probably consider “Sights Once Seen” little more than an exercise in polluting the great outdoors with mercury vapor. They’d be partially right, but only because Shlaer has mishandled the framing of his
project. He should have downplayed the idea of re-creating Fremont’s expedition and its visual documentsan impossible task, given the fragmentary knowledge that survivesand focused instead on the sheer joy of refashioning the daguerreotype for the modern eye. Shlaer’s brooding horizons, fanciful smoke curls, and shimmering lakes demonstrate that an artful muddling of the truth can be far more worthwhile than
literal documentary. They also neatly validate the idea Shlaer staked his career on in the first place: History is sometimes wrong about dead ends. CP