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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

History framed by new technology

Early photos offer vivid look at region’s past

“The Branded Hand’’ (by Southworth & Hawes) depicts punishment for trying to help slaves escape. “The Branded Hand’’ (by Southworth & Hawes) depicts punishment for trying to help slaves escape.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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The Massachusetts Historical Society has some 12 million manuscript pages in its holdings, as opposed to 100,000 photographs. Quantitative ratios don’t always translate into qualitative ones. What we see, after all, is often a lot more vivid and memorable than what we read. Just how vivid and memorable is evident from “History Drawn With Light: Early Photographs From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.’’ The show runs through June 3.

The society, founded in 1791, wasted no time in acquainting itself with photography. It was just under a half century old when Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype, the most popular early type of photograph, in 1839. The next year it held a demonstration of the process at the society’s quarters, then on Tremont Street. A few months later, the society acquired its first photograph. It showed the oldest building in Boston.

Photography uniquely stood at the intersection of art (which it created), history (which it recorded), and technology (which it utilized). All three aspects of the medium are on display in “History Drawn With Light.’’

The exhibition opens with a handsomely appointed re-creation of a portrait studio of the antebellum era: oriental carpet, leather-upholstered armchair, stained-oak walls. The show’s 70-some-odd photographs (do stereoscopic images count double?) are in the next two rooms. The effect is at once imposing and cozy: grand rooms, grandly overstuffed. Adding to the domestic atmosphere are the presence of several contemporary paintings and an 1855 group portrait of society members. Like a page from a family album, this is cold-roast Boston in the saddle and on the hoof.

Extensive wall texts are informative without seeming didactic. There are other thoughtful viewing touches. Light shields are available to offset the glare on daguerreotypes. An 1877 panoramic photograph of the waterfront (it’s just under 11 feet wide) comes with a selection of smaller, numbered photographs of the waterfront today, which can be compared with the corresponding portions of the panorama to see how much has — and hasn’t — changed.

Portraiture was, and likely remains, photography’s greatest attraction. The camera democratized the recording of the human face. By the end of the 1840s, Boston boasted 43 daguerreotype studios. People wanted individual portraits. They wanted family groups. They wanted calling cards. They even wanted portraits of pets. The adorability quotient of an 1854 daguerreotype, “T. Tuugg, (the Dwight family dog),’’ would put to shame any amount of Animal Planet programming.

Among the portrait subjects are some eminent names: John Brown, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the young Francis Parkman. Others were more famous then than now. Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, has the beefy, implacable look of a character out of Balzac. No, Victor Hugo: He’s a jowly Javert.

It comes as no surprise that Southworth & Hawes, Boston’s leading daguerreotypists, took Shaw’s portrait. Although the society’s collecting considerations were archival rather than aesthetic, one can already see the artistic possibilities for photography emerging in works such as the Shaw portrait or Southworth & Hawes’s “The Branded Hand.’’

The latter remains startling and horrific 166 years after its taking. The image shows the outstretched palm of a Massachusetts sea captain who had tried to help slaves escape from Florida. On his hand have been burned the letters “S.S.,’’ for slave stealer, punishment for his abolitionist efforts. The letters resemble links in a chain, a chain it would require the Civil War to break. Images from the war take up much of the show. One presents Henry F. Steward, a sergeant in the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. His upraised sword and erect carriage chime with the classical column beside which he poses, while the jaunty tilt of his cap deflates any hint of pomposity.

Part of the attraction of photography was that amateurs could practice it as easily as professionals — and sometimes more skillfully. Francis Blake was an inventor who made his fortune with a telephone transmitter. He eventually turned to the camera, experimenting with high-speed photography. In one product of those efforts, we see his son, Benjamin, leaping. In another, his daughter, Agnes, drops a weight alongside a measuring post. Sibling rivalry meets Newtonian physics: What goes up, must come down.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

HISTORY DRAWN WITH LIGHT: Early Photographs From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society

At the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston St., through June 3. Call 617-536-1608 or go to www.masshist.org.