About This Image
Waterman Lilly Ormsby made this engraving from a daguerreotype by Gurney, who learned about the daguerreotype process from Morse himself. A copy of the engraving exists in the Smithsonian. This is a scarce and early image of Morse, often called "The Father of American Photography".
In the spring of 1839 Professor Morse traveled to Paris to secure a patent on his telegraphic apparatus, where he learned of the experiments of M. Daguerre. Morse was naturally anxious to hear more of this new art of painting with sunbeams, especially as he himself had made experiments to ascertain if it was possible to fix the image of the camera obscura, and had given the matter up as impracticable.
Professor Morse was preparing to leave Paris for home, when, in conversation with the American Consul, Mr. Robert Walsh, he one morning remarked, "I do not like to go home without first having seen Daguerre's results." The consul thought the matter might be easily arranged considering Morse's European reputation, and suggested that Professor Morse invite M. Daguerre to see his telegraphic apparatus, in return for which courtesy M. Daguerre would doubtless invite Professor Morse to see his pictures. The plan was successful. Professor Morse had the pleasure of seeing the wonderful results of the new discovery at the Diorama, where M. Daguerre had his laboratory, and where he gave frequent exhibitions of his pictures to the foremost scientific men of the day. The pictures were mostly views of streets, boulevards, and buildings, those of the Louvre and Notre Dame being especially fine. Interiors, still life, groups of plaster casts, and other works of art were also most successfully treated by the new process. Daguerre had not succeeded in making portraits as yet, and he told Professor Morse "that he doubted if it could be done".
Documented in The US Democratic Review, May 1839 professor Morse describes the daguerreotypes as "The impressions of interior views are Rembrandt perfected. One of Mr. D.'s plates is an impression of a spider. The spider was not bigger than the head of a large pin, but the image, magnified by the solar microscope to the size of the palm of the hand, having been impressed on the plate, and examined through a lens, was further magnified, and showed a minuteness of organization hitherto not seen to exist."
The very next day at noon following Professor Morse's visit of Daguerre's diorama, Daguerre came to see Professor Morse to witness the operations of his telegraph. During the visit which lasted more than an hour, Daguerre's Diorama burned to the ground with all his beautiful daguerreotype specimens and valuable notes and papers. Everything was destroyed.
Morse was the first to receive the process details in America directly from Daguerre. Morse states in an article in the 1872 Philadelphia reporter "In my interview with him [Daguerre], however, I requested him, as soon as his pension bill was passed, and the publication of his process was made, to send me a copy of his work, which he courteously promised to do, and accordingly in the summer of 1839 I received from him probably the first copy that came to America. From this copy, in which, of course, were the drawings of the necessary apparatus, I had constructed the first daguerreotype apparatus made in the United States. States. My first effort with it, was on a small plate of silvered copper, about the size of a playing card, procured from a hardware store; but defective as it was, I obtained a good representation of the Church of the Messiah in Broadway, taken from a back window in the New York University."
On his return to New York, in April 1839, Morse inspired his two brothers Sidney and Richard with his own enthusiasm and according to his brother Sidney, they removed the central part of the roof of their six story building, covered it with a skylight, furnished the new chamber with cameras and the other apparatus of photography, and, erected the the first "tabernacle for the sun", on the Western hemisphere. Morse took the first photograph in America from a back window of the university which was a view of the tower of the church of the Messiah, on broadway, and surrounding building on a plate the size of a playing card. Morse experimented and perfected his daguerreotype process in this studio and opened the first classroom in America to teach the art science of photography.
In 1840, Professor Morse continued his daguerreotype experiments with Dr. John Draper. Together they open a daguerreian studio and classroom in the University Building. Samuel Broadbent was also noted to have assisted Morse in his studio until about August, 1841. Within this studio, the first portraiture was taken by Morse then perfected by Draper. Morse continues to teach the process to the first generation of American photographers including Mathew Brady, Albert Sands, Southworth and Jeremiah Gurney to name a few.
Athough Morse's photographic career lasted only two years, the impact he made by announcing the photographic process to American and then teaching the profession to the first wave of pioneering photographers is monumental.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse was an artist, as well as a scientist. His scientific accomplishments are highly regarded throughout the world. But his vision and leadership in ushering in the beginning of photography to America have elevated him to an even higher regard as "The Father of American Photography".
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Medium Engraving print
Photo Date 1840s Print Date 1840s
Dimensions 5 x 3-5/8 in. (127 x 92 mm)
Photo Country United States (USA)
Photographer Country United States (USA)