by Gerald Boerner
The middle of the 19th century was an exciting time. Our country was expanding its boundaries and fighting wars with Mexico. We were seeing the seeds of confrontation being sown between the slave-based economy of the southern states vs. the industrial economy of the northern states. We had the discovery of gold in California and the gold rush. AND, we had the development of the photographic process by Daguerre in France and Fox Talbot in the U.K.
While the daguerreotype was recording the mother load country in the Sierras by Carleton Watkins, Thomas M. Easterly was establishing himself in the Missouri area. Ordinary people could now afford to record their likenesses on polished metal plates in any of the many daguerreotype studios around the East coast of the US. Easterly brought this function to the mid-Western U.S.. GLB
“I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.”
— Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre
“A good daguerreotype was as perfect a kind of photograph as was ever made.”
— Edward Steichen
“Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery, it’s not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people’s eyes.”
— John Ford
“Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.”
— Henri Cartier-Bresson
“Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.”
— Edward Weston
“Everything is a subject. Every subject has a rhythm. To feel it is the raison detre. The photograph is a fixed moment of such a raison d’etre, which lives on in itself.”
— André Kertesz
“I made a photograph of a garden in Kyoto, the Zen garden, which is a rectangle. But a photograph taken from any one point will not show, well it shows a rectangle, but not with ninety degree angles.”
— David Hockney
“I treat the photograph as a work of great complexity in which you can find drama. Add to that a careful composition of landscapes, live photography, the right music and interviews with people, and it becomes a style.”
— Ken Burns
This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.
Thomas Easterly: America’s Leading Daguerreotypist
Thomas Martin Easterly (1809 – 1882) was a 19th century American daguerreotypist and photographer. One of the more prominent and well-known daguerreotypists in the Midwest United States during the 1850s, his studio became one of the first permanent art galleries in Missouri.
Although his reputation was limited to the Midwest during his lifetime, he is considered to have been one of the foremost experts in the field of daguerreotype photography in the United States during the mid-to-late 19th century.
Not much is known about Easterly’s youth, except that he taught calligraphy in New England before moving west to Missouri, where he lived by 1847. In St. Louis, he opened a daguerreotype studio on the corner of Fourth and Olive Streets, near where the St. Louis Arch stands today. It is unknown how Easterly learned the craft of producing daguerreotypes, but his mastery of the form is apparent even in his earliest known works.
In 1864-65, when Norton Townshend was based in St. Louis as a Medical Inspector, he often called on the Easterlys and referenced them in his diary and letters home to his wife. Townshend’s updates reveal the Easterlys’ personalities (Miriam was "enquiring," with a love of books, and Townshend called Thomas "intelligent" and "an excellent workman")1. Townshend also reported news of the Easterlys’ financial struggle, a result of the declining popularity of daguerreotypes and Easterly’s unwillingness to give up what he considered a "perfect and durable" process.
The J. Paul Getty Museum sketch on Easterly summarizes his role in photography as:
A sometime calligrapher and writing teacher, Vermont-born Thomas Easterly learned the daguerreotype process in New York between 1841 and 1844, possibly from Charles and Richard Meade. In 1844 Easterly sailed from New York City to New Orleans, where he made photographs before returning to Vermont the following year. He did not remain for long: by October, he had entered into a daguerreotype studio partnership in Iowa. He and his partner operated as traveling photographers working throughout Iowa and Missouri for several years. Some scholars have credited Easterly with making the first photographs of Plains Indians.
After the dissolution of the partnership, Easterly moved to Saint Louis and took over a studio in 1848. He had a successful career for ten years, but his loyalty to the daguerreotype process after the introduction of the ambrotype, tintype, and paper photograph processes caused his business to falter. By 1860 Easterly had begun to sell farm implements in addition to continuing his daguerreotype practice.
Born in Guilford, Vermont, he was the second of five children born to Tunis Easterly and Philomena Richardson. He reportedly came from a poor background, his father being a farmer and part-time shoemaker, and was living away from home at age 11. Around 1830, he was living in St. Lawrence County, New York although little is known of his early years.
He began working as itinerant calligrapher and a penmanship teacher traveling throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and New York during the 1830s and 40s. By 1844, he had begun practicing photography taking outdoor photographs of architectural landmarks and scenic sites in Vermont. Among his earliest daguerreotypes, made a decade before outdoor photography was popular or profitable, those of the Winooski and Connecticut rivers are the only known examples to be self-consciously influenced by the romantic landscape paintings of the Hudson River School artists. He was also the first and only daguerreotypist to identify his work using engraved signatures and descriptive captions.
Easterly daguerreotype of
Miriam Bailey Easterly with
sewing basket, c. 1850.
In the fall of 1845, Easterly traveled to the Midwest United States and toured the Mississippi River with Frederick F. Webb as representatives of the Daguerreotype Art Union. The two gained some notoriety from their photography of the criminals convicted of the murder of George Davenport in October of that year. Iowa newspapers reported that Easterly and Webb had achieved a "splendid likeness" of the men shortly before their execution. Easterly and Webb continued touring on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers for several months before spending the winter of 1846-47 in Liberty, Missouri.
The following spring, Easterly and Webb went their separate ways with Easterly traveling on his own to St. Louis. He soon became popular for his portraits of prominent residents and visiting celebrities which were displayed in a temporary gallery on Glasgow Row. One of these portraits was that of Chief Keokuk taken March 1847. He also took a daguerreotype of a lightning bolt, one of the first recorded "instantaneous" photographic images, while in St. Louis. This was later recorded in the Iowa Sentinel as an "Astonishing Achievement in Art". Before retuning to Vermont in August 1847, the St. Louis Reveille described his as an "unrivaled daguerreotypist".
He was brought back to Missouri by John Ostrander, founder of the first daguerreotype gallery in St. Louis, in early 1848. Preparing for an extended "tour of the south", Ostringer asked Easterly to manage his portrait gallery. Esterly would continue running the gallery when Ostringer died a short time later. Many of his unique streetscapes depicting mid-19th century urban life were taken from the window’s of Ostringer’s gallery. In June 1850, he married schoolteacher Anna Miriam Bailey and settled in St. Louis permanently.
During the 1860s, improvements in photographic development caused daguerreotypes to become out of fashion. Easterly refused to acknowledge these changes believing the highly detailed daguerreotypes were far superior in terms of beauty or permanence urging the public to "save your old daguerreotypes for you will never see their like again". During the next decade, both his health and financial situation worsened. Despite the declining interest for pictures on silver, he was able to maintain his gallery until it burned in a fire in 1865. He was forced to move to a smaller location and continued working in near obscurity until his death in St. Louis on March 12, 1882. He had suffered from a long illness and partial paralysis in his final years and is thought to have been caused by prolonged exposure to mercury, one of the key ingredients used in the daguerreotype process.
On December 11, 1864, Townshend noted that:
"Mr. Easterly has not yet obtained any permanent employment neither have I been able to obtain any thing remunerative for him to do. He has just passed a circular offering to clean Daguerrotypes (sic), copy or change them into other styles. I hope he will be successful…"
Soon after writing this, Townshend attempted to find Easterly a position with the Quartermaster’s Department, but was unsuccessful. He was, however, able to help out with monetary loans, gifts of groceries, and perhaps just as importantly, books:
"I called on Mrs. Easterly both evening[s] & made her the offer of my Library ticket while I go to Kansas. I find she has a great taste for reading… Mr. Easterly is very intelligent but sees more & reads less."
Financial help became even more of a necessity after a fire broke out in Easterly’s studio in January 1865. Townshend reported that it "burned up a great many of Mr. Easterly’s pictures & machines &c. He was insured $500, but that will not cover his loss. The picture of Maggie Bailey is lost & I have no copy. Mr. & Mrs. E. feel very sad about it & Mr. E. seems almost discouraged" Surely such a setback must have been devastating to the already-struggling couple.
Easterly continued to produce his exceptional daguerreotypes through the 1870s, reportedly never working in any other format. However, the small income that the daguerreotypes brought in had to be supplemented: Thomas began selling farm equipment through newspaper ads and Miriam sold items she had sewn. In 1865, Townshend had helped her to evaluate a number of sewing machines:
"I spent the afternoon with Mrs. Easterly in a tour among sewing machines. We came to the conclusion that the Wilcox & Gibbs machines is the pleasantest & best machine… Our examinations grew out of an attempt of some one here to interest her and Mr. Easterly in some new cheap machine from the state of Maine[.] We concluded after a careful inspection that the new machine was of ‘no account.’"
In the late 1870s, Easterly suffered a "long and painful illness," possibly mercury poisoning, from which he died in 1882. Shortly after this, Miriam came to live with the Townshends in Columbus, Ohio. It is thought that the daguerreotypes in her collection passed down to Margaret Townshend’s daugher, Harriet, and onward down the family line. Others of the Easterly daguerreotypes that accompany the Townshend items are believed to have belonged to Margaret and Miriam Bailey’s sister, Linda Cahill. They capture all four of the Bailey sisters and in some cases their families, but focus particularly on Miriam Easterly, showing her in what may be her wedding dress, with flowers, and, in another image, accompanied by her sturdy sewing basket, which was so critical to the Easterlys’ livelihood.
After his death, his wife sold most of his personal collection to John Scholton, another noted St. Louis photographer. The Scholton family eventually donated the plates to the Missouri Historical Society where they remained for nearly a century before being rediscovered during the 1980s by art scholars studying pre-American Civil War photography.
Gallery of Images
[ You may view a gallery of Easterly’s images HERE. ]
Publications about Thomas M. Easterly
Dolores A. Kilgo, (1994) Likeness and Landscape: Thomas M. Easterly and the Art of the Daguerreotype. [ISBN: 1-883982-03-0]
This is a beautiful volume that masterfully illuminates the career of a little known but gifted daguerrean, Thomas M. Easterly. Historian Alan Trachtenberg called this book "simply the most accomplished and most important study of an American artist in photography yet produced." This beautiful volume was a finalist for the internationally recognized 1996 Kraszna-Krausz Photography Book Awards and received an Honorable Mention in the American Association of Museums’ 1995 Museums Publications Design Competition.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Thomas Martin Easterly…
Web Sites and Blogs:
Getty Museum: Thomas Martin Easterly…
University of Michigan: Townshend and Easterly…
University of Michigan: Thomas Martin Easterly Gallery…
Brainy Quote: Photographic Quotes…