WASHINGTON _ Out of the antique brass frames, in hand-tinted colors, stare memorable faces:
Abolitionist John Brown very nearly glares, poised and defiant. Poet Lydia Sigourney half smiles, prim and correct in a Victorian bonnet and lace gloves. Liberian President Stephen Benson sits in a three-quarter profile beneath a veil of tarnish.
These three portraits are among 33 daguerreotypes now at the National Portrait Gallery to share the story of Augustus Washington, one of America's first African-American daguerreotypists and a pioneer in commercial photography.
“To have examples of work by one of the few black daguerreotypists is significant by itself. It really does make him rather extraordinary,” said exhibit curator Ann Shumard.
Some of Washington's images in the exhibit also are extraordinary. His portrait of Brown is the earliest known likeness of the abolitionist. Sigourney was the first female literary figure in America to make both a name for herself and a living by her craft. Benson was one of the earliest settlers of Liberia, and this is possibly the only image of him.
The daguerreotype was an early form of photography, invented in 1839, that captured images on metal plates. The plates themselves were the photographs. Often, in a fashion of the times, the black-and-white images were hand-tinted to add flesh-tones.
At the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibit, called “A Durable Memento,” is the first to show a collection of Washington's work. The exhibit will be open at the gallery until Jan. 2, 2000. Then it goes to Hartford, Conn., and to New York City as the gallery closes for three years of renovation.
Washington's influence on photography, Shumard said, was as both a craftsman and an entrepreneur – an early Olan Mills who brought portrait photography to the mass market. “He simply brings to it a good business sense,” said Shumard, “and the ability to make images that are appealing to the public.”
In the exhibit, the daguerreotypes range from Washington's first work in Connecticut to the end of his career in Liberia, where he became perhaps the first resident daguerreotypist on the African continent. And the exhibit – built from curator Shumard's three years of research – paints an original and extensive portrait of a man who challenged the slave-era expectations for even free blacks.
“He was,” said Shumard, “nobody's lapdog.”
Washington was born in Trenton, N.J., in 1820 or 1821. His father and stepmother were former slaves. They wanted for their son the education they lacked, Shumard said.
Washington attended the Kimball Academy, the Oneida Institute and Dartmouth College. He passed that education on by teaching at the African Public School in Brooklyn and in the basement of the Rev. James W.C. Pennington's church in Hartford.
In his one year at Dartmouth, Washington was the only African-American student. To pay his tuition, he turned to the daguerreotype, a growing fad in 1843. Eventually, he started his own business in Hartford, to which he was drawn by its abolitionist politics.
A shared commitment to abolition, suggests curator Shumard, may have persuaded John Brown to sit in front of Washington's camera.
His studio in Hartford outlasted many competitors. “He was an excellent marketer of his product,” said Shumard. He offered a wide range of daguerreotype sizes and 30 ways to display them, from lockets to bracelets to the classic brass frames featured in the gallery's exhibit. His prices: 50 cents to $15. And he promised warranties on the portraits against fading.
But even with his financial and educational success, Shumard said, Washington felt limited by his skin color in a country that still had slavery. In 1856, he reluctantly sailed with his family to Liberia, a colony for freed slaves set up in West Africa by white Americans in 1816. Washington, like many African-Americans then, saw the colony as a deportation effort by whites. But, he wrote, he finally concluded that if black Americans ever to find “a home on earth for the development of their manhood and intellect,” they would have to find it in Africa.
In Liberia, where he died in 1875, Washington went into politics, became a major landholder and published a newspaper. He served two terms as speaker of Liberia's House of Representatives and one term as a senator. And he kept making daguerreotypes for a time, including the earliest images of the Liberian Senate, which are part of the exhibit.
“This desire to do something worthy and useful animates his life,” Shumard. The exhibit's images reflect much of that, she added. “They are mementos,” said Shumard, “both of the sitters and of the man who made them.”