Saturday, February 16, 2013

It was Phebe of course, to initially see the changes coming over me and before it was fully recognized for what it was, I very nearly died.

I believe I may have already mentioned the dangerousness of my profession.  In the early days most especially.  The volatility of the various chemicals we daguerreians used combined with the always present oil lamp, stove or other heat source contributed to numerous outbreaks of fire.  In fact, in the very same year my mind and body began to fail me, a fire broke out in the studios of Mr. Whitehurst which I would eventually purchase and renovate for my very own.

Fire had nothing to do with my own infirmity, however.  The source of my ailment was that of a much more insidious nature.  One that provided nothing in the way of fair warning.  None of man's senses could detect it and it came as a result of my obstinant refusal to follow the suggestions that other pioneers in this new venture had been so kind to proffer.

Even my dear old friend and colleague S.D. Humphrey, a fine daguerreian in his own right and one of our earliest editors and advocates for the establishment of our industry had warned me each time he came by my studio at 189 Broadway.  Still I would not listen.  I would like to think this was the last vainglory to inhibit me from my ability to live as my creator would see fit to have me to do so.  I do know a hard lesson was taught and ever afterwards adhered to.

While this occurred in '52, it should be pointed out that the photographic process was, even 12 years on, still in it's infancy.  Changes to methods were always being adopted however the one constant and the one I failed to implement was the need for a ventilating hood in developing the plates over a bath of warm mercury.

It was the mercury or more precisely, the clear, odorless, tasteless vapor of warming mercury.  Hours upon hours.  Days.  Weeks.  Years passed while i stood over the bath of warm mercury, developing my daguerreotypes.  Ignorant of what was occurring to me until the symptoms became horribly apparent.

My years of semi-retirement have provided me with sufficient reading time and lately I have been enthralled by what I read of the advances in medicine and specifically man's attempt to understand the nature of dreams.  This fellow Freud and his colleagues and their interests in what they call psychoanalysis.  All very intriguing to me as I do recall battling a form of madness in the early stages of what I would eventually realize was my mercury poisoning.

I remember early on how easily my attention would wander and how easily frustrated I became.  Headaches, dizziness and forgetfullness plagued me.  It became necessary for me to write copious notes and instructions in order to complete even the simplest of tasks.

I am by nature, as my long list of family, friends and colleagues would I'm certain swear to, fond of company and full of the enjoyment of life and all it has to offer.  This is why, in the early weeks and months of that dynamic year, Phebe began to take note of the changes manifesting within me.

I grew short tempered and withdrawn.  I had no interest in the society of others.  I became the opposite of what I had always been!  What confounded those who I came into contact with was my very own inability to recognize these changes.  I dare say Phebe and all who knew me became convinced I was going mad!

My business, so vibrant up to now, began to fail.  Colleagues much concerned; the Anthonys, Humphrey, Snelling even my new friend and soon to be business partner, C.D. Fredricks, all became concerned.  It was as if the Jeremiah Gurney they had known for years had been replaced by an unruly doppelganger.  I have no doubt that had my symptoms not evolved into that of a more visable nature, I would have found myself committed to the lunatic asylum on Blackwell's Island.

The manifestation to outward physical deterioration did occur however and hideously so.  I will spare the reader the specifics only to say it was grotesque in every sense of the word.  Very quickly, my Phebe and those whom I have counted as my friends and colleagues, then as they continue to be now, were fortified to recognize the symptoms as poisoning by exposure to mercury and sought out my much needed medical assistance right away.

I sit here in the early morning hours of April 1895, looking back more than 40 years ago.  A more humble and grateful servant to my creator, I strive to be.

From the April 15 1852 edition of Humphrey's Journal of Photography

Humphrey's Journal of Photograpy May 1852

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