It would be difficult to imagine a time when it was impossible for the average person to snap a simple picture as they went about their day. Cameras are in our cell phones, on our computers, even in the tailgates and dashboards of our cars. It is a matter of routine to brandish our cell phones and capture a photo of a funny moment, amazing sunset, or family gathering - not to mention the added ability to instantly send that photo to friends and family virtually anywhere around the globe. We now take this advancement for granted, but photography as an invention, activity, and profession is really quite a recent phenomenon. So recent, in fact, that we can name the exact date that photography was introduced to this county.
This all stared while I was browsing a run of the Catskill Messenger from 1841-1842 looking for the date that the paper first switched publishers. In those days newspapers were founded to support certain political parties, and several thousand Whigs in Greene County had only the Messenger to convey them news and editorials on the Whig party’s successes (and more frequent failures). The speeches of their Whig champion in Congress, Henry Clay, appeared so frequently that he could almost be considered a regular columnist.
For ten years Greene County Whigs who read the Messenger had counted on the steadfast commentary of Ira Dubois, sometimes Sheriff and storekeeper in Catskill who founded the Messenger in ’31. His stepping down from ownership of the paper he started was a big deal. In May of 1841 it turns out that Ira was elected to a municipal office, and he sold his cherished Messenger to friend and fellow Whig William Bryan for an undisclosed sum. Because it was the only local Whig paper, ownership of the well-established Messenger was quite lucrative for Bryan. Shouldering his responsibility gratefully, Bryan made sure he kept printing the news Whig readers wanted: science, arts, market, and international news filled its pages through 1841 and ’42.
It was here in an April 1842 issue that I found a fascinating advertisement. The headline read “Daguerrotype Miniatures taken by A. Johns” and named the place and times he could be found in Van Bergen’s Hotel on Main Street in Catskill. Daguerrotype photography was extremely new at that time - in fact it was the first practical photographic method used on a wide scale, and it had made its debut in Europe in 1839 with much fanfare. The process was far from perfect, and other inventors eager to make their mark continued to improve the process through the 1840s, ‘50s, and ‘60s before it was superseded by simpler techniques.
The daguerrotype process, like many early photographic techniques, required long exposures and bulky equipment. This made daguerrotype photography suitable almost exclusively for studio settings where subjects could be posed and photographed in controlled lighting. These early cameras didn’t use celluloid film to create a negative exposure. Instead the photographer, using a bit of knowledge of chemistry, would coat a polished metal plate with chemicals that would cause the image to be “burned” onto the metal when it was exposed to light inside the camera. This meant every daguerrotype was one-of-a-kind and that making multiple identical copies was not possible. “Developing” the image occurred immediately after a treated metal plate had been exposed to light, so having a darkroom nearby was a necessity. Holding the exposed plate over a heat source “fixed” the developed image permanently on the metal substrate.
This complicated process involving light and mysterious chemicals seemed to be science fiction, making it a big deal that a photographer was showing off a camera in Catskill less than two years after photography had been introduced to the world. We do not know how A. Johns’ visit was received or who took him up on the offer to purchase cameras of their own, but we know that from this point onwards photography was here to stay.
By Jonathan Palmer, Deputy Greene County Historian.
(A version of this article originally appeared in the November 27, 2018 issue of the Catskill Daily Mail.)