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The Silver Canvas: Daguerreotype Masterpieces from the J. Paul Getty Museum

Author: Bates Lowry and Isabel Barrett Lowry

Description: Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998. 256 pages, 9 x 11 inches. 30 color and 74 b&w illustrations ISBN 0-89236-368-1 (cloth) $80.00; ISBN 0-89236-536-6 (paper available only at the Museum)

The Getty Museum collection of daguerreotypes began in earnest 14 years ago with several collections acquired as a block. The Museum continues to acquire important pieces and, as a result, its holdings are considerable and represent an archive worthy of study and appreciation. We are now presented with an excellent overview of the best of the Museum's holdings. But rather than a wonderful book of pictures something for the casual browser or a handsome tome for the coffee table we are treated to a masterful text that is the full equal of the master works of the daguerreotypes depicted on its pages.

The Silver Canvas: Daguerreotype Masterpieces from the J. Paul Getty Museum, by Society members Bates Lowry and Isabel Barrett Lowry is indeed a marvelous volume. The book should rightfully assume a place in the standard library of the daguerreotype and belongs next to the volumes of Taft, Gernsheim, Newhall, Wood, Rudisill, Rinhart, Welling, Kilgo (and others that could be mentioned.)

But be not quick to shelve it along side of Gernsheim, etc. after only a brief perusal of the images and after reading a few words of text! This is required reading for anyone serious about furthering their understanding of the daguerreotype. The essays deserve careful study, and not a paragraph or note should be skipped. Presented here is not a restatement of stale information but rather fresh research that is both thorough, ground breaking and engaging.

The book features nearly eighty examples most never previously published that have been carefully selected from the Museum's outstanding collection. What is immediately apparent is the world-scope of the collection. The focus is certainly not US-centric but is rather a conscientious culling of masterpieces regardless of place of production.

The book is composed of six chapters, each including several plates discussed individually at length in the context of their respective chapters. Following is an epilogue, notes, a "Roster of daguerreian Makers in the Getty Museum collection", a single page of selected bibliography, and an index. I must, however, single out Chapter Two as worthy of special mention. "Stealing from the Mirror" is a magnificent essay regarding portraiture and is accompanied by rich imagery. But does the text accompany the imagery or does the imagery accompany the text? The question itself is testimony to the dual strength of the book.

But I consider the "Prologue" as the volume's stellar work. This 30 page essay, "The Origins of the Daguerreotype" is worthy of the highest praise. I could have closed the book at that point and have felt entirely justified in calling the book a smashing success! Perhaps the strongest element of the Lowrys prologue essay is their research among the Daguerre-Niépce documents now held in the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Lowrys fresh look at the material (to which the Gernsheims paid scant attention) has allowed them to provide a clearer understanding of the relationship between these two men. The reader will be pleasantly surprised at their findings.

I should mention a few things about the wonderful imagery of the book. The illustrations nearly sparkle and are rich and vibrant. The color reproductions are superior and the layout and design is clean and attractive. The book is pure visual delight and I especially appreciated seeing the marvelous images by the Swiss amateur Eynard whose deserving work is well represented in the book.

It would be easy for this reviewer to simply "gush" regarding this book without finding any fault. If fault must be found, then I suppose that I could identify two very minor complaints. During the discussion of individual images, I did find myself taking issue with a few comments regarding the skill, ability, and intent of an artist. Perhaps there is a too-liberal allowance to assume the daguerreotypist purposely and actively controlled every detail of light and shadow and every subtlety of pose. . .as if simple serendipity never came into play. I must also admit to feeling somewhat let down by the book's "Epilogue." While I applaud the book's world-view approach, yet it ended on a rather American theme which seemed discordant with the preceding content. These are indeed minor complaints that certainly had little bearing on the sheer enjoyment of the book as a whole.

Both novice and expert will enjoy this production. While the Lowrys' scholarship is beyond reproach, their essays are never mired in difficult language or overly complex thought. Their words are carefully chosen, often with wonderful result: ". . .almost as if the light itself of. . .so long ago still exists with the object. . . "

The endeavors of The Getty Museum and the Lowrys have produced a finely balanced book that satisfies the reader both visually and intellectually. I can say, without hesitation, that the volume is brilliant in every respect.

For further purchase information contact:
Getty Trust Publications
P.O. Box 49659
Los Angeles CA 90049-0659
800 223-3431 North America
818 778-6943 International

Gary W. Ewer is the web site focal for the Daguerreian Society

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