Salt Prints

November 25th, 2011

The Museum where I work (and sometimes curate exhibits that include modern art) has featured photographs by artist Hal Hirshorn in three exhibitions: “Tending the Fires”, “Memento Mori: The Birth & Resurrection of Postmortem Photography”, and “In the Spirit: Modern Photographers Channel the 19th Century”. Working with an early 20th-century view camera fitted with a mid-19th century lens, Hirshorn uses 19th-century techniques, including Henry Fox Talbot’s salt printing process, invented in 1834.

Tending the Fires

This salt print is from Hirshorn’s series shown in “Tending the Fires.” It was taken two years ago in the kitchen of the Merchant’s House Museum. Others featured the same model — representing one of the Irish servants who once lived and worked in the house — cleaning the parlor grates. One of those photographs was published in the Historic House Trust newsletter, where a visiting historian saw it and marveled at how lucky the museum was to have original period photographs of its servants…

It was a natural mistake, given the atemporality of the image, though it is extremely uncommon to find photographs of servants dressed in their working clothes from the mid-19th century — even more rare to see one in the act of cleaning. I was particularly amused because I was the model portraying the servant. I made the dress I wore in less than three days, then sweated through an August heat wave in a corset and three petticoats while holding really, really still for the long exposures. Before the shoot, Hal brought over books of photographs by Arthur Munby, a British photographer who broke with his own social class to document 19th-century working women — most famously taking many photographs of Hannah Cullwick, a maid-of-all-work who was also secretly married to Munby.

Earlier this year, I — and lots of other people — participated in another series by Hal Hirshorn, this time recreating the death and funeral of Seabury Tredwell in 1865.

It was an incredible project, a production of prodigious proportions. Hirshorn shot in three historic locations, including the Merchant’s House Museum, Grace Church, and the New York City Marble Cemetery. There were 14 different models — some taking part in multiple shoots — each wearing some sort of mid-19th century mourning costume. The weather was less than cooperative. The final shoots had to be rescheduled thanks to hurricane Irene. An earlier shoot took place despite an impending rainstorm that let loose just as we were heading home. You haven’t lived until you’ve chased four men in top hats carrying a coffin down Broadway, while wearing a corset and a hoop skirt, in the middle of a torrential downpour.

If you’d like to see the funeral photographs in person, you’ve got three more days, until Monday, November 28, to visit the exhibit at the Merchant’s House Museum. Works by Sally Mann, John Dudgale, and RA Friedman are also on display, along with historic spirit photographs from Thomas Harris and The Burns Archive.

Chante Macabre

November 3rd, 2011

More shameless promotion of the events at the Museum where I work…

Click here for information and reservations.

John Dugdale on Spirit Photography

November 2nd, 2011

The art event of the season!

Dugdale Lecture

Click on the invite graphic to enlarge, or visit for more information about the exhibit.

In the Spirit

October 4th, 2011

I’ve just finished installing a new exhibition at the museum where I work, and I think it’s the best we’ve ever done! A handful of 19th century spirit photographs (invented in 1861 by William Mumler, who claims to have photographed his dead brother while sitting for a self-portrait) are paired with breathtaking modern photography that “channels the past” by Sally Mann, John Dugdale, Hal Hirshorn, and RA Friedman. The 19th-century photos are from the collections of Thomas Harris and The Burns Archive*.

I am in love with every single piece of art in the show, not to mention the old spirit photographs. I am having a grand time wandering down to the gallery every few hours, just to gaze at them. Here’s a sneak peek at one of the photographs from Hal Hirshorn’s salt print series “The Death & Funeral of Seabury Tredwell:”

Salt Print by Hal Hirshorn

Hard to believe this was taken in August 2011! It’s posed in the New York City Marble Cemetery, where Seabury Tredwell (who died in 1865) was interred for 6 months. The photograph, and nine others in the series, are even more evocative in person. The works by Mann, Dugdale, and Friedman are not to be missed either.

And yes, that is me wiping my eye over the coffin. One of the best things about getting involved in curating art exhibits in NYC is that you sometimes get invited to model for a real live artist! I’ll let the other models — all of whom are talented artists and performers in their own right — retain their anonymity.

*I’ve curated two shows in collaboration with The Burns Archive, which is one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited, and an incredibly important collection of 19th century photography. Memento Mori: The Birth and Resurrection of Postmortem Photography and New York’s Civil War Soldiers: Photographs of R.B. Bontecou & Words of Walt Whitman are the titles of the shows, in case you feel like looking them up.

Art |

The Exhibit is Open

April 14th, 2011

And I do hope you’ll come and see. It’s rather incredible, if I do say so myself (all I did was some writing and fabricating, so it’s no violation of modesty for me to layer on the invective in favor of the amazing collection that is on display). Where else can you gaze at one-of-a-kind Civil War medical portraits, not seen since the 19th century? The photos on display are from The Burns Archive, and include hauntingly beautiful album prints by Civil War Army surgeon R. B. Bontecou, a few by Mathew Brady, and many others. The entire exhibit is captioned with quotes from Walt Whitman’s memoir of Civil War nursing, Specimen Days.

The exhibit tips its hat to Dr. Stanley Burns’s latest book, Shooting Soldiers, which has been released just in time for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and features many of the Bonetcou images. There’s also a small annex devoted to New York’s Seventh Regiment National Guard and The Siege of Washington, by John Lockwood and Charles Lockwood, also recently released.

Image courtesy of The Burns Archive

But don’t take it from me. Here’s what our local public radio station, WNYC, had to say.

And here are the details on how you can see these photographs in person — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should not be missed by anyone interested in photography, history, or the Civil War:

Exhibit Dates: April 14, through August 1, 2011
Location: Merchant’s House Museum (29 East Fourth Street, NYC)
Title: New York’s Civil War Soldiers
Open: Thursday-Monday (closed Tuesday & Wednesday), noon to 5 p.m.
Price: Included with regular admission, $10, $5 Students & Seniors (a real bargain, as you get to see the rest of the Museum as well)
Bonus: Say you know “Eva” and get a strange look from the person working the door…