A Durable Momento: Portraits by Augustus
Washington, African American Daguerreotypist . National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
This exhibit of daguerreotypes by Augustus Washington is very small, with about 32 of these early photographs and a few artifacts forming the entire exhibit. Sadly, much of this artist's work has been lost. However, what remains of the artistry of Augustus Washington, magnified by the beauty and intensity of the daguerreotype image, make viewing the exhibit worthwhile.
The daguerreotype, named for its creator Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre in 1839, was the earliest commercial photograph process. A metal plate was coated with chemically-treated silver on which the image is fixed.1 The silver gives the daguerreotype its distinct mirror-like image. Because the daguerreotype image was a direct print, and not produced from a negative, the image is a rare one-of-a-kind artifact. Augustus Washington was one of the earliest African Americans to take up the practice. This exhibit marks the first time that his work has been brought together for study.
Washington was a free man born around 1820 in Trenton, New Jersey. In 1843, he entered Dartmouth College, but left after less than a year because of financial reasons. While at Dartmouth, he took up daguerreotypy. Unfortunately, the funds from his initial success as a daguerreotypist were not enough to continue his studies. He moved to Hartford, Connecticut in 1844 to take charge of a school for Black students, and by 1846 Washington had begun practicing photography again. His highly successful studio attracted a large clientele from Hartford and the surrounding area.
Washington's interest and support of the abolitionist effort began early. At first, he was against the colonization efforts of the American Colonization Society. But when the freedom of Blacks was threatened by potential capture, as a result of the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, he began to find immigration more attractive. In 1853, 49 emigrants, along with Washington and his family, left for Liberia, a colony established on the west coast of African for immigrating manumimitted slaves and free Blacks. The leaders of the American Colonization Society secured Washington's services as a photographer. While in Liberia, his studio was patronized by some of the country's most prominent citizens.2