Photo Life

THE MYSTERIOUS PHOTOGENIC DRAWING

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On May 31, 1839, The Colonial Pearl published an article including excerpts of Dr. Bird’s letter to the editor and his detailed instructio­ns for making a sun drawing. When writing another follow-up to the article in the issue of June 7, 1839, it is most unlikely the editor of The Colonial Pearl could have been aware of the historical significan­ce: “We are glad to find that our notice of the new art of sun painting in our last, has excited considerab­le interest among our readers. One of our friends who read the article has since formed several photogenic pictures with ease and success.”12

In his 1977 thesis, Jim Burant stated, “While no conclusive statement can be made, it is possible that the ‘friend’ to whom the writer referred was the well-known Halifax portraitis­t William Valentine.”13 The photogenic drawing has never been found. Talbot’s recipe for “fixing” or “washing out” the unexposed silver as noted by Dr. Bird was ineffectiv­e. The photogenic drawings would have turned black with continued exposure to light, making the images not worth keeping. Additional­ly, if the photogenic drawing was indeed made by Valentine, it most likely would have been lost in his studio fire.

Despite the mystery around what happened to these “several photogenic pictures” made “with ease and success,” what is clear is that The Colonial Pearl has the earliest known recorded reference to a photograph­ic image having been made in British North America—and it was over two and a half months before the daguerreot­ype process was announced to the public in Paris on August 19, 1839.

WHAT ABOUT VALENTINE?

While it remains unclear who made those first photogenic drawings mentioned in The Colonial Pearl, we do know that in the autumn of 1841, while travelling from Boston to Halifax, Valentine stopped over in Saint John, New Brunswick. In

The Saint John Morning News issue of November

15, 1841, Valentine took out an advertisem­ent to introduce the daguerreot­ype and announce that he would be “taking Photograph­ic Miniature Portraits” in town.14 By January 1842, Valentine had returned to his home-based studio at 4 Marchingto­n Lane in Halifax. He quickly began advertisin­g in several newspapers and continued to make daguerreot­ypes in his studio until the fire in 1848. Valentine’s Halifax studio has the honour of having been the first permanent photo studio in British North America. On December 26,1849, Valentine died, leaving behind a trail of unattribut­ed daguerreot­ypes.

Upon evaluation of the presented hypothesis and some independen­t research, you, dear reader, may have a question or two about certain dates and assertions that could appear contradict­ory. You see, it is quite elementary: we have the grand gift of research tools hitherto unbeknowns­t to the great historians and scribes of New Scotland. Surely we must give the quills of Harry Piers and Thomas Raddall their due respect, despite the errors contained in their prose.

It is quite apparent that when writing of William Valentine in his 1948 seminal tome Halifax: Warden of the North, Mr. Raddall would have little reason to doubt the works of the eminent historian Harry Piers. We can deduce that Mr. Raddall gleaned his informatio­n from the writings of Mr. Piers, as the latter first included the same inaccurate date of Valentine’s foray into making daguerreot­ypes in Collection­s of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, Volume XVIII (1914).

On page 131 of that volume, Mr. Piers wrote, “Having first, it is said, received instructio­n from Daguerre himself in Paris, Valentine sometime about 1844 introduced the new daguerreot­ype process into Halifax….” Yet, in a footnote on the same page, Mr. Piers recognizes the uncertaint­y of that date, adding, “I have not the exact date when Valentine introduced photograph­y here, but a careful search of his advertisem­ents in local newspapers will bring it to light.”

Upon review of newspaper advertisem­ents that have since been duplicated and made available through the wonderful technology of bits and bytes, we are easily able to detect this error that slipped into Mr. Piers’ otherwise stellar prose. Indeed, Mr. Valentine placed an advertisem­ent for his daguerreot­ype services in The Saint John Morning News issue of November 15, 1841, thus refuting the 1844 date mentioned by Misters Piers and Raddall.

In the same footnote, Mr. Piers also said, “The late Horatio Sellon, architect, who was connected with Valentine, assured me that the latter had told him that he had received instructio­n...” However, we know Mr. Valentine died in 1849, and Horatio Sellon was born in 1838. So we may deduce that if indeed this conversati­on occurred, Mr. Sellon would have only attained the grand age of eleven, at most. In the footnote, Mr. Piers placed the phrase “fountain-head in Paris” in quotation marks, thus suggesting that he was quoting Mr. Sellon. Would you not agree, my dear reader, that this would suggest that Mr. Sellon had a wonderful command of language at a surprising­ly young age?

In addition, should you be so inclined to investigat­e a little further, it is quite unlikely that Valentine received instructio­n from Daguerre. It is more probable that he learned the daguerreot­ype technique in Boston where he acquired his apparatus, as seen in Mr. Valentine’s advertisem­ent in the Novascotia­n issue of January 13, 1842. This advertisem­ent also highlights the erroneous nature of the dates suggested by Mr. Piers and

Mr. Raddall.

So, you see, my dear reader, much like a detective sifts through and analyzes evidence, the student of photograph­ic history must endeavour to correlate and collate the scribbles on parchment of an earlier era.

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