Sunday, September 11, 2011

April 1st, 1895

Jeremiah Gurney, American (1812-1886). Young Girl with Arms Crossed, ca. 1852-1858. Daguerreotype. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2006.44.11.

My daughter Martha enters the room in her quiet, kind manner.  She's carrying a tray of tea and breakfast breads along with a loving smile and gentle admonishment of "Papa, you know you shouldn't be writing without the reading light on at this hour of the morning."  I turn my gaze to her and my mind's eye transforms her from the middle aged widow standing before me into the 13 year old girl who posed for the first prize winning photograph ever taken in this or any other country.

"My dear, your father's eyes are as clear and focused as they were forty some odd years ago when I handed you Mr. Anthony's silver pitcher."  She smiles and places the tray on the table, handing me a cup of tea and inquiring into what I am writing on this chilly first day of April.  A birthday letter, she hopes, to her brother Ben?

The smile stays fixed upon my face for I dare not dash Mattie's longing for a reconciliation between myself and my only son.  But underneath it, the thought of how things went so terribly wrong with him and myself, how so much love and success could be replaced with such an abyss, fills my heart with despair.


And so it came to be, that on a warm, sun drenched October morning in '39, the little silver bell that hung on the door of my jewelry shop announced a visitor who would change my life from that moment on.

In hindsight, I had of course already heard of him though I can't recall ever having seen his portrait nor an engraving.  Professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse was, at that point in time, one of the most famous men in New York City if not the world and in reading of him and his developments in our newspapers, I had come to admire his constant, inquisitive nature.

An artist, historian and teacher at the University of the City of New York by profession, Morse had recently made headlines with the announcement of a new means of electrical long distance communication he called the Telegraph.  The promise of such a means of sending and receiving messages instantly from say, New York to New Jersey or even, dare we dream, New York to Washington City, gave many a learned individual pause to consider, what could man possibly come up with next!

Introductions were established and it was at this point that Professor Morse made clear the reason for his visit.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse in 1840

"Mr. Gurney, I am today visiting your fine establishment as well as the other jewelry shops here on Maiden Lane with news from Paris of a new method of portraiture by means of science and sunlight rather than brush and oils."  It was then that I recalled reading earlier in the year of M. Daguerre's successes with such a process.  I listened with no small level of interest as he began to relate his story, for the idea had fascinated me ever since I first read of such a process.

"I had been invited by Daguerre himself.  To visit with him on my trip to his country from whence I announced to the continent my own success with electrical telegraphy.  An exchange of ideas and practices were discussed and frankly, I found him to be a very humble and open individual.  It appears that both he and a fellow countryman of his, a Monsieur Niepce have been working parallel to one another on putting theory to function and, while Niepce has since passed, both Daguerre and an Englishman named Talbot have arrived at the finish line more or less at the same instant."

"While Daguerre has been awarded pensions from their government for his country's participation in international scientific advancements, Mr. Talbot on the other hand is hard at work on a patent for his process.  Which leads me back to my own situation.  If procurring a patent is as difficult for the englishman as it has been for me and my invention, Mr. Talbot will have to find an interim means of providing for himself and his family, should he have one."

"You see, Mr. Gurney, while I do have a mind for how things work, I am above all an artist.  Professors are the recipients of a glorified title, little else.  The scientific aspect of my private interests in telegraphy have been subsidized solely on fees collected by way of my students directly.  I receive no salary.  To make matters more difficult, I have been advised by more than one government employee, the process of applying to the United States Patent Office requires time and patience.  Money seems to be the one ingredient they always seem to overlook mentioning, however."

My thoughts turned to my own situation.  I was 27 years old.  Already the father of a three year old son, Ben.  My wife Phebe , pregnant with our daughter Martha, was due any day.  Additionally, I had others to think of.  Phebe's mother, Lavinia and sister, Charlotte were also members of our household.  I knew first hand how difficult times were.

Morse continued, "We live in hard times, Mr. Gurney.  Our country is suffering at the moment.  Growing pains is how our leaders and newspapermen describe it perhaps but pains nonetheless.  To survive and provide for ones family, a man needs to use every available means he has to bring money into his posession.  That is why I'm here in front of you today."

"Mr. Gurney" Morse continued, "I bring you an opportunity to add to your shop's services offered and thereby add money to your register.  Upon our conversation's close, M. Daguerre handed me instructions on how to produce his sun portraits or as he calls them, daguerreotypes.  He wanted no compensation other than the recognition of his contribution by way of the term, daguerreotype.  Over the past few months, I along with a colleague, a fellow professor who happens to be a chemical engineer by the name of Draper have been experimenting with Daguerre's instructions and enhancing them for commercial purposes.  We believe we're at a point where almost anyone with a modest degree of intelligence can produce an individuals resemblance rather successfully."

"The process does involve a certain amount of aptitude with regard to the use and combining of certain chemicals but they are readily procurable by way of my affiliation with the University."  He offered a quiet smile as if to infer that this aspect of the process may be better left unmentioned.  "What you will have to allow for is the initial outlay to build the camera obscura, as it is called, and the apparatus and holding containers for the development and fixing of the portraits.  And there is of course my fee."

"Which is?"  I inquired.

"Twenty-five dollars.  Payable upon our first instruction.  If this is agreeable to you, I should like to invite you to my atelier where you may view several specimens that Mr. Draper and I have produced to date.  Upon your inspection, if you find this pursuable, you may pay me and tutoring will begin."  Morse's attention then turned to our surroundings, as if he were mentally sizing up my little shop up for other purposes.  The sun's rays drenching us with warm light thru the large store-front windows.  Turning his palms over and opening them, he sighed contentedly as a prism of color from a glass ornament hanging near my windows danced in his hand.

It was then that I asked what had been on my mind since the moment he began his business proposal.  "Mr. Morse, why are you coming to me with this opportunity?"  "Because Mr. Gurney," he replied "your customers have two crucial things to spend, time and money.  And because," casting his gaze and directing my attention back upon the refraction taking place within his grasp, he gently closed his fingers as if on the very rays of sunlight in his palm, and pronounced, "you sir, have this!"

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