Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
History of Art
When and where was photography invented? Received knowledge tells us that a few European men of distinction invented the medium sometime around 1839. This dissertation de-centers this origin story to include the United States, where artisans, chemists, and instrument-makers effectively reinvented photography, transforming it from a scientific curiosity into an instantaneous image and a mass-reproducible commodity. In the antebellum US, a culture of public science and democratic network building cultivated a collaborative community of artisans and scientists skilled at the manipulation of the material world as federal projects like the US Mint and the postal service encouraged the circulation of images and information also fostered crucial developments in photographic technology. This history illustrates how cultures of American science and art were less dialectical pairs than mutually imbricated practices and how, in this context, we may conceive of the daguerreotype as a product of artisanal labor and as part of a democratic community of instruments deployed in order to connect an ever-expanding United States.
The dissertation consists of five chapters arranged chronologically. Chapters One and Two examine the work of figures including the instrument-maker Joseph Saxton, metallurgist Robert Cornelius, and the chemist John W. Draper, who buttressed photographic development through photochemical experimentation and artisanal refinements. Chapters Three and Four address the American art of portrait photography and how the professional portrait studio served as both a site of racial suppression and democratic relationality. In these chapters I examine the images and writings of the craniologist Samuel Morton, the photographer Marcus Aurelius Root, and the orator and anti-slavery advocate Frederick Douglass. Chapter Five examines Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion (1887) as a key moment of departure from an understanding of photographic practice as a skilled craft, to a new perception of the medium as an amateur pastime and scientific tool in the form of the instantaneous snapshot. Finally, in a gesture toward the present, I offer a coda examining Chris McCaw’s Sunburn series, which I suggest illustrates how the medium’s chemical and artisanal past has come to serve a renewed aesthetics of fine art photography in the twenty-first century.
Smiley, Michelle. “'An American Sun Shines Brighter': Art, Science, and the American Reinvention of Photography" Ph.D. diss., Bryn Mawr College, 2020.
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