The inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F.B Morse is commonly known as the “Father of American Photography”. Art students know him as one of the best portrait painters of his time. Morse’s life has been full of many accomplishments and this article illustrates only a few noteworthy ones among them.
His journey as a photographer began when he visited France and England in 1838 to secure patents for his telegraphic device. Since, the period for the collection of the patents were extended for a long time, he had the chance to live in Paris and explore the city, until the spring of 1839. Work of famous artist Daguerre was at that time attracting many heads for his incomparable work in the French capital.
Morse requested Daguerre for an interview to discuss the specimens of the new art and even received a response from him in early March, 1839. It was then that he got the opportunity to view a photograph for the first time in his life. He informed his brother about this exciting meeting with Daguerre and his art form called Daguerreotype. The New York Observer published his description on April 20, 1839 which was then copied by many other newspapers. It was the first account ever of the Daguerreotype given by an American. He pursued the artform on his return to America and became one of the first Americans to experiment with this new art. He made many Daguerreotypes including that of his family.
What interested Morse the most was the idea of attempting portraiture by photography, but since the exposure took so long that taking portraits seemed like an arduous process. Most photographers hence, stuck to capturing still lifes in strong and bright lighting. It was photographers like Morse who first attempted to make portraitures no matter how difficult they were.
Morse’s colleague, Dr. J.W. Draper, who was a chemistry teacher at the University of the city of New York, another American developed interest in capturing portraits using the Daguerreotype style of art. They got together to establish one of the first photographic parlors in the country, during the spring of 1840. This parlor was a glass house situated on the roof of a building in a corner of Nassau and Beekman streets in New York. Some of the earliest portraits using the method was created here, with the help of the sun that focussed on the “sitters” through mirrors.
While he did begin very passionately with photography during this period, it was also a very troublesome period of Morse’s life. He had lost most of his art students due to his travels abroad and his work with the telegraph resulted in a loss of financial aid. Meanwhile, he was also on hold and waiting for long periods for some support and recognition from the government of the United States. He was in a precarious condition when it came to finances and it was his training in learning the Daguerreotype art that saved him to some extent. He was able to continue with the development of the telegraph with the profit he earned from the new profession.
As this style of photography started to gain popularity and much acclaim, he began to receive students who wished to be trained in the same and hence, there was an addition to Morse’s source of income. He charged a fee of about twenty-five to fifty dollars from these students depending on their financial capability. He received the title of the “Father of American Photography” from these very students, which included artists like Mathew B. Brady, Edward Anthony, Samuel Broadbent, Albert S. Southworth and many other renowned names in the field of portraiture photography.
The government granted him permission for the telegraph in 1840, but the Congress delayed the funding process for the construction of a trial line till 1843. Post 1843, this legend abandoned the practice of photography and retired from the profession entirely. However, he always maintained a firm interest in the art form and has been invited to judge many photography events during the rest of his life.