Greene History Notes: Catskill Daguerreotype Dynasty | Columnists

In the spring of 1857 an advertisement appeared in the Greene County Whig announcing the opening of a photographic studio on Main Street in Catskill. Located above the Van Loan Brothers Bookstore, Van Loan’s new Sky Light Daguerreotype Rooms offered the public the opportunity to make portraits and commissioned images using the most popular and exciting techniques that the field of photography had to offer. Van Loan’s new Skylight Room was probably not Catskill’s first official photographic studio, but it arrived here with a pedigree that traced its lineage to the genius of the first active daguerreotypists in the United States.

The daguerreotype process, which was the world’s first widely available photographic technique, came to the United States almost immediately after the process was publicly announced by Frenchman Louis Daguerre in 1839. Samuel FB Morse, inventor of the telegraph, had visited Daguerre before the announcement and discussed this early period of innovation in a letter to Henry Hunt Snelling in Poughkeepsie in 1848. The main purpose of Morse’s letter was to clarify the timeline regarding those involved in perfecting the process of daguerreotype as a portrait-making technique – an idea that was relatively new given the constraints initially posed by Daguerre’s method.

The daguerreotype process required lots of light, long exposures and a good understanding of chemistry to achieve a photograph that was often difficult to see on the exposed silver plate. Beginning in 1839, Samuel Morse and a small cohort in the United States began to study, perfect, and improve Daguerre’s groundbreaking but capricious work. Morse claimed that by 1840 he, along with Alexander S. Wolcott and John W. Draper, had all successfully attempted portraiture with refinements of Daguerre’s method – an accomplishment with far-reaching repercussions and thus an act of considerable historical importance.

Alexander S. Wolcott and his partner John Johnson subsequently became wholeheartedly committed to the advancement of daguerreotype portraiture, jointly developing methods to improve everything from the cameras themselves to the quality of photographic plates, and even by reimagining the physical spaces in which their subjects were photographed. . Wolcott and Johnson’s work culminated in a novel studio on Broadway and Chambers streets in New York City, where in an upstairs room they sat subjects for portraits under a custom-built skylight. Beneath this skylight was a circular track fixture that allowed the entire system – subject, camera, and background – to be positioned where the ambient light most fully and effectively illuminated the model for a timely image. and well lit.

Wolcott and Johnson’s innovation, which was well suited to the commercial application of daguerreotype portraiture, proved the most lucrative as a licensed product. In 1841 they had sold the rights to use their technique in England to a Mr. Richard Beard, and before July of that year they sold their studio in New York to a Catskill businessman named Matthew Dies Van Loan who immediately took up photography with some fanfare. Van Loan’s advertisement in the New York Tribune of July 1841 advertised “photographic likenesses by the process of the daguerreotype.” MD Van Loan, successor to AS Wolcott.

Van Loan apparently had favorable initial success and received glowing editorials in the Tribune and the New York Herald. Both newspapers hailed him as one of the city’s preeminent practitioners, with the Herald even praising his latest innovations in technique as “Sun Painting”. It was during this period that Van Loan probably began to train his son Samuel in the process using the skylight arrangement, and it is possible that Matthew brought Samuel with him when he left for Europe in the late summer of 1842 to study abroad and further improve his work.

What happened next becomes confusing. Van Loan returned from Europe and the New York studio ran successfully probably until 1844, but by 1847 Matthew Van Loan was advertising in a Washington, D.C. newspaper and doing portraits there. It was during this same period 1844-1847 that some authors claim that Samuel Van Loan probably settled in Philadelphia. Either way, father and son left New York – Samuel to start his photography career, and Matthew apparently to end his. Samuel was receiving favorable editorials in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1849, the same year his father’s old Washington studio was advertised under another practitioner’s name.

Walton Van Loan, a younger son of Matthew who went with his father to Washington, summarized the highlights of the elder Van Loan’s later career in a biographical review: Matthew left Washington to seek new opportunities in California, at least bringing his second wife Julia and young Walton with him. After working for several years at a customs post in San Francisco, Matthew D. Van Loan died suddenly of an illness in June 1856, after which the family returned to Catskill and Walton opened a bookstore with his brother. It is unclear whether Matthew, once one of New York’s leading daguerreotypists, ever touched a camera during his final years in California.

Whether because of Matthew’s death or because of increased competition in Philadelphia, Samuel Van Loan returned to Catskill with his family in 1857. Setting up his studio upstairs above his half-brothers’ shop , Samuel began to advertise using the skylight system first developed. by one of the pioneers of daguerreotype portraiture and popularized by his late father. He continued the business in Catskill until at least 1861, and like many of his peers in the daguerreotype trade, Samuel fell into obscurity in the last years of his life. He and his wife Anna died in 1900 and 1901 in Cairo, New York, and they were buried in Philadelphia although more than forty years had passed since their stay there.

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