Young America. The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes. George Eastman House International Center of Photography
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In 1843, Southworth & Hawes established their studio in the center of old Boston at 5½ Tremont Row on what came to be known as Scollay Square, near where the painters Copely, Trumbell, and Allston once had their studios, and many contemporary artists still did. In one of their three adjoining loft spaces they installed for their purposes a large overhead skylight, 15 feet by 12 feet, which they later claimed to be the first built in America. “It was hard work to make pictures in our rooms,” Southworth later recounted. “We never knew where our camera was going to stand, or where the sitter was going to sit, when the sitter came into the room. We arranged the sitter as we could, according to our judgment, the way the face ought to be represented in the picture, and when we got the place to sit ourselves there it had to go.”

Southworth & Hawes business card. Southworth & Hawes Manuscript Collection,
Richard and Ronay Menschel Library. George Eastman House.

The handling of light and shadow was then, as it is now, the major challenge of the photographic portraitists who seek to produce both likeness and pictorial effect. Their skylight gave a well-defined, mild light, which covered the full figure to the floor and extended to both sides of the room. By positioning the sitter slightly away from the skylight, they could model the face and figure with shadow. In this way, they could avoid broad, flat lights and shadows. The highlights, the shadows, and the middle tints were balanced in harmony, especially on the face. The photographs sought to achieve well defined, yet transparent shadows, especially under the brows, nose, and chin.

In many instances, they made multiple exposures, with significant changes in the position of the sitter and camera. The clients were given their choice of image, and the other versions were often retained in the studio. This practice accounts for the survival of such a large body of Southworth & Hawes’s work and allows one to appreciate their working method.

For their services, Southworth & Hawes demanded a high fee and never lowered their prices as other studios did to attract volume business. They made a specialty of large-format plates, which were the most expensive productions and required the highest degree of technical and aesthetic skill.

In the early 1850s, glass plate photography began gaining momentum. Boston was a leading center for its introduction to America through the studios of their competitors. Southworth & Hawes devoted substantial effort to applying the daguerreotype to the stereoscope at this time, while many leading studios in America started to abandon the daguerreotype. In 1853, Southworth & Hawes began to make photographs using other methods in addition to the daguerreotype. By 1856, the daguerreotype ceased to be their mainstay, and they devoted their efforts to wet plate collodion photography and paper prints.

The daguerreotype process had been central to their partnership and creative collaboration. With its demise, the partnership was dissolved in 1863. Many years later
Hawes expressed his feeling for the daguerreotype: “Although the process has become obsolete…all experts agree that no other process can render objects, viz., the human face, with such fidelity and beauty.”

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