Assembling a Teaching Collection of 19th-Century Photography

When teaching a course in art history, material culture, or visual culture, it is desirable to teach directly from the object whenever circumstances and class sizes make that possible. PowerPoint is a terrific tool, but the reproduced image on the projector screen can distort students’ perceptions about size, color, and many other variables. In order to facilitate learning about nineteenth-century visual technologies, I have begun to gather a small teaching collection of photographic materials. The objects in this collection are commonly available in antique stores and on eBay, and run from a few dollars to about $50. In examining these objects up close, students learn to distinguish between different types of photographic processes and experience the intimate scale of these items firsthand.

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My collection currently includes a daguerreotype, two ambrotypes, two tintypes, two cartes de visite (CDVs), a cabinet card, a stereoscope with several stereo cards, and a modern tintype and CDV copy by Rob Gibson of Gettysburg. Whenever I visit an antique store, I look for new objects to add to the collection.

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One of the goals of my collection is to teach students to distinguish between daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. These three photographic processes look almost identical when viewed in reproductions in scholarly texts or museum catalogues. But when looking at the photographs in person, students can easily see the differences between the daguerreotype’s mirrored surface, the ambrotype’s black-backed glass, and the tintype’s comparative durability. Students also react to the intimate scale of the photographs in their decorative leather cases.

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This collection also allows me to let students experience the effect of looking through a stereoscope and seeing a two-dimensional image take on added depth. For classroom purposes, I look for stereo cards with an exceptional depth of field.

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For classroom handling, I place the more delicate pieces into letter trays I purchased for a low price at Target. The trays are lined with felt to protect and offset the photographs, and I also place labels in the trays to reinforce the distinction between different photographic processes. These trays allow students to pass the photographs from person to person with a minimal risk of damage.

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I often look for opportunities to add new categories to my collection. I am particularly interested in the ways in which the stereoscope may have allowed a special understanding of three-dimensional sculpture, and I am looking to collect more sculpture stereo cards. These three cards represent works by John Rogers. In addition, I am hoping to collect CDVs of nineteenth-century celebrities and examples of popular print culture.

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One of my favorite objects is this CDV of Sgt. Alfred Stratton of the 147th New York Infantry, who lost both of his arms above the elbow when he was hit by a solid shot outside Petersburg, Virginia on June 18, 1864. After the war ended, he sold CDVs of his image to support his family. I have recently begun investigating Sgt. Stratton’s self-presentation for an article project.

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Finally, I remind students that some photographers are still using nineteenth-century processes to produce photographs with an uncanny connection to the past. This tintype (and accompanying CDV) was taken by Rob Gibson of Gettysburg on July 2, 2013 during the celebration of the battle’s sesquicentennial. I find that the video below of Gibson making a wet plate photograph is a useful companion to the presentation of my teaching collection.

I hope this post inspires you to create a teaching collection of your own! Many examples of nineteenth-century ephemera are relatively easy to find and inexpensive to acquire, and a demonstration with actual objects is a valuable tool in the classroom.

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