This week on Fellow Fridays, Frederick S. Upton Fellow Alicia Risk thought she wanted to talk about photography history using a small collection of daguerreotypes she found in the collection. Instead, she found herself on the floor between shelves, buried in old books and family documents and ultimately discovered way more than just some proto-photographs, she found an entire St. Joseph family story!
Have you ever gotten a weird vibe from looking at a photo? I consider myself a pretty spiritual person— I’m a firm believer that ghosts exist and do haunt people/places. Not a lot of stuff I’ve come across in HMCC’s collections has given me that spooky vibe, but this collection of daguerreotypes certainly made me go “buhhh”. Let’s learn about how they’re made first, and then we can get to the creepy photos!
Photography as we know it today looks almost nothing like what it did in the late 1830s when Louis Jacques Mande Dauguerre, a French scenic painter and inventor, created one of the inaugural methods of photography: the Daguerreotype Process. This process begins with a copper plate coated in silver, and polished to a mirror-like shine. From there, the plate is exposed to a combination of bromine and iodine fumes; first being suspended into iodine-chloride gas, and secondly into bromine-chloride gas. The combination of these gas exposures make the silver coating on the plate sensitive to light, making the plate ready for the actual photography.
Once the plate is prepared, it is loaded into a protective slide that shields the plate from light before it is ready to be put into the camera. That slide is inserted into the camera device, which consists a small black box with mirrors and a covered aperture drilled through the front of the box. The subject of the photograph is set up – sometimes propped up and posed with metal stands, as shown in the diagram on the left  – and when they are ready, the covering on the lens is removed, exposing the silver plate to the light of the room. Where there isn’t light, like where a person is standing the surface is blackened, and where light hits, the plate stays silver.
As you might guess, this process is very sensitive to any movement from the subject, and movement while the plate is being exposed creates an eerie effect, as shown in this example to the right that I found in the Heritage Archives. This daguerreotype is of a young child, Oreanna Tryon, who moved during the exposure, and so the silver plate reflects that movement. The slip of paper tucked inside identifies her and is dated 1863-1866: and sadly, these are most likely her birth and death dates.
Another downfall of this photographic process is the photosensitive nature of the plates. As time passes, the plate’s image becomes lightened and is only visible at certain angles, as shown in this photo I took of this daguerreotype, featuring members of the Knight family. Their image, dating to the mid 1860’s based off of her dress, is so overexposed that they are barely visible at this angle. In an attempt to protect the plates from light
exposure, daguerreotypes are typically placed in a small rectangular box frame and protected with a velvet padding facing the image. While this does help alleviate some of the light exposure that damages the image, time eventually takes its toll and deteriorates the plate.
I discovered these plates in a small archival box in HMCC’s archives; inside were 6 small daguerreotypes, still in their original housings, some with identifying slips of paper inside the tiny frames. The curious thing about these images is that not all of them include the Tryons – several plates feature the Knight, Kent and the Adkins families that appeared to be unrelated. Unsure of the connections between these families, I searched the collections and found two other Banker’s Boxes labeled “Tryon”. These two large boxes are where my research for this blog turned out to be a bit more extensive than what I had originally planned for this week. I wrongly assumed the small box of daguerreotypes were the only pieces in the Tryon collection, but the two larger boxes I discovered contain an assortment of the family’s historic possessions, including clothing, ledgers, diaries, school textbooks dating back to the 1830s, and the family Bible.
I learned from this Bible that Mrs. Ethel (Plee) Tryon, a life-long St. Joseph resident and active member in the community, was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. This organization, which is still very active throughout the country, is a genealogical association for women whose ancestors fought in American Revolution. Ethel served as the Regent of both the Lansing and Northwest Frontier DAR chapters, and attended meetings for 50 years of her 96-year life. The entire scope of the Tryon collection contains artifacts belonging to the broader Tryon family tree. It includes a set of books ranging from 1830 to 1940: diaries and ledger records from non-Tryon family members, including Lydia Martin, Ethel Plee, Lavina Rentfrow (later she remarried to become Lavina Knight), Sarah Collier and Charles Colby. This group of people seemed to have no connection until I looked into this Bible’s middle section, where the family kept records and portraits. One of these pages had the entire family tree written out, covering as far back as 1743! Ethel’s extensive family records helped explain the identities of these mysterious people were in the daguerreotypes, and tied the whole collection together.
One of the ledger books in this collection belonged to Ms. Lydia Martin, a cousin or aunt (Ethel Tryon’s notes are unclear as to Ms. Martin’s specific place in the family) and presumably the owner or wife of a farm in St. Joseph. Ms. Martin wrote daily entries into this book, covering the weather, happenings taking place on the farm, as well as anything exciting that day. 141 years ago today, Ms. Martin wrote this entry:
1876, October 26
Thursday cloudy has Davis and wife went home
Father went down to the orchard and I and we all went to
the cider mill and got 3 barrels of cider made.
Sounds like a good day to me! Another diary I found, labeled “Charles Colby, 1850” contains daily records of what he did that day, how much money he spent and the weather: my favorite part being that Mr. Colby had a fairly large candy budget- he mentioned candy about 6 out of 7 days out of the week!
These, and the other texts in the collection have made for an awesome day of research, and I’ve really enjoyed looking through the collection. This week’s blog went from researching a simple piece about daguerreotypes to learning about the entire history of one of the Twin City’s first families. I don’t know if there are any descendants of the Tryon, Martin, Plee, Knight, or Rentfrow families in this area, but if there are some who are interested in their family history, the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center is the place to come learn all about their ancestry! The daguerreotypes and documents in this collection are not only cool and a little spooky to look at, but can teach us a significant amount of St. Joseph and photography history.
I found so many cool things in the Tryon collection yesterday that I just have to share the photos I found- they’re just too interesting not to post! Unfortunately I don’t know too much about these next pictures but I want to make sure you get a peek at some neat local history.
I had a great time looking through this collection and learning more about our local history, and finding out more about one of the earliest forms of photography. If you have questions or you’re you’re interested in hearing more about this collection, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center at (269) 983-1191.
If you have any topics you’d like to get covered on Fellow Fridays, or any other parts of the HMCC blog, contact us at email@example.com! See you in a couple weeks!
 The Daguerreotype Process. Accessed October 26, 2017. http://www.photohistory-sussex.co.uk/dagprocess.htm.
 Gillespie, Sarah Kate. The early American daguerreotype: cross-currents in art and technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016.