Saturday, February 23, 2013

"Father?" "Yes, Ben."  "I want to come to work with you."

He was always ambitious, my son Ben.  Always in motion.  As a child he was difficult to photograph as he simply would not be still for the pose.  Nothing seemed to hold his gaze for the time needed to capture his likeness.  Even my gentle admonishments received little attention.

As he grew older, he became more aware of the position of prosperity my profession had brought upon our household.  We lived well.  His sister and he had, within reason, all they could desire.  I say within reason as I did try to raise them in a Christian manner.  Weekly Friends meetings were attended and an attempt at instilling the theology of love and service was endeavored.

Still, the physical wealth was apparent.  The carriages and horses, our homes on Fifth Avenue and Henry Street in Brooklyn, all appointed and outfitted with the latest and finest that New York City had to offer.  Phebe doted on them far too much.  And there was her sister Charlotte and their mother Lavina living with us.  There were Irish housemaids too.  All of them conspiring to coddle and fawn over both Ben and Mattie in the most obscene manner!

I had many a conversation with one and all about the way my children were being attended to and my objections to such.  Nods of acquiescense and assurances of being more stern with them were received and still, within hours, the over-indulgence would continue.  I must confess, I myself had a difficult time adhering to my own rigidity.  Ben was, is my son and Mattie my dearest daughter!  As children and even today, there is not a mean spirited aspect about them and nothing their father wouldn't do to help them.

His request concerned me.  At 20, I had hoped he would continue in his education at the university.  Explore what interested him and have at it with the same level of enthusiasm that had come upon me in the early days of my studies with Morse and Draper.  I said as much to him in reply.

"Father, I want to come to work with you.  I have been to your studios.  I have observed the photographic process with you and your employees.  I understand as well as anyone, the nature of your business.  Who better than your son to bring on?"

My ambivalence surely must have stung him for I saw it on his face and in his reasoning.  Still, a sense of foreboding hung over me.  A fear that life had come too easily for my Ben and the implications of what might arise as a result of it worried me.

If I was to object to his entering into my business, I might lose him altogether.  If I brought him on as he seemed inclined to believe as rightfully befitting, I would further pacify him.

From my study, I sat and looked out my window upon the muted coming and going of hansom cabs and omnibuses making their awkward, twisting way along Henry Street, Brooklyn in the year 1857.

Gazing up into my son's young face and nodding with assent, I suggested he plan on making the morning ferry to 349 Broadway though both he and I would do as much on our own, not together.  There would be no nepotism attached to this position.  No patronage.

It was then that he smiled.  That warm smile that I've seen cross his face in either actual kindness and gratitude or, as in so many instances, whenever he had received his way.  He began to take his leave when I offered a final reproof.

"And Ben, you will be working for me, not with me."

From the 1857 Trow's New York City Directory

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