Sunday, January 4, 2009

A popular application of early photographic processes is the subject of a small but fascinating exhibit tucked into a corner of the National Portrait Gallery. “Tokens of Affection and Regard,” on view through June 21, presents more than 50 examples of antique jewelry bearing portraits of men, women and children.

These keepsakes originated in the 1840s with the invention of the daguerreotype and later grew to embrace other 19th-century photographic techniques, including ambrotypes, tintypes and paper prints.

On display is a wide range of examples — bracelets, earrings, buttons, stick pins — as well as images of ordinary people wearing the precious creations. Decorated with pictures of loved ones, these baubles were worn to celebrate births and weddings, and mourn death.

The only famous likeness is Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, whose face peers from a gold-rimmed locket. Morse introduced the daguerreotype to Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, one of several pioneers responsible for making and selling photo-jewelry along with more conventional portraiture.

Though big business for photo studios through the 1880s, the jewelry is now fairly rare. According to the exhibit catalog (one of the first histories of the subject), the daguerreotypes and ambrotypes set into the pieces were often destroyed for their raw materials or to rid their settings from pictures of unknown dead people.

The exhibit is valuable for drawing attention to this little understood, hybrid form of art and design. It celebrates a practical side of early photography as well as a social custom of commemorating life’s major events through miniature portraits worn close to the heart.

Deborah K. Dietsch

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