One of the perks of being an author is the people I meet…readers, writers, kindred spirits. As a fantasy/paranormal author, the list of interesting individuals grows. Yet I also cross paths with dedicated collectors, historians, and experts, typically when I do research. Such was the case with Fine Daguerreotypes and Photographs.
An image roped me in. A memento mori. In this case, a death portrait of a handsome young man, his likeness captured by the daguerreotype process. Dags, as they’re sometimes called, were the earliest photographs created by a process using an iodine/bromine-sensitized copper plate, coated with silver, and developed in mercury vapors. They became popular in the fall of 1839 and continued until about 1860 (Waters). I’ve collected a few in my antiquing travels, but I’d never been struck by one so haunting. So focused and detailed, the man looked alive, and I found myself staring in wonder. When I discovered the seller of this odd treasure was a collector and expert dealer in New England, I reached out.
A charming Victorian-era barn is home to Fine Dags and Photos, a family-owned business since 1995. Visiting one sunny morning felt more like Christmas to me than a warm Spring day. Glass cases and displays of daguerreotypes, tintypes, jewelry items, paintings, and photographs spread out as far as I could see. The creator of Fine Dags—Dennis (Denny) Waters—greeted me with a warm smile and a handshake. And thus, began our day of discussing a world of photographic art I never imagined could be so captivating.
In my opinion, the first thing you notice about most daguerreotypes is their clarity. Countless shades of black, white, and grays, and yet the clothing of the subjects, their hair, jewelry, even their skin is often epically clear. Lace gloves, crisp fabrics, wrinkles, and freckles. That’s not to say these images lack color. In fact, many were hand tinted by artists to add color to cheeks and clothing. Actual gold and/or silver may also have been hand-layered to enhance the image and portray fine jewelry or buttons. It’s fascinating. And it’s personal with an air of closeness to the subject(s), which is unique compared to any other photographic process.
“Why collect, restore, and sell dags?” I asked Denny, who retired from a long career as a professional photographer (architectural, aerial, and corporate photos) to do this full-time twenty-three years ago.
“These were regular people,” he explained. “Yet, not unimportant in the scheme of history. Men, women, children, old people, craftsmen. We are the keepers of these ordinary people. What we want is to preserve them through time and connect them to people who appreciate them today.”
“What makes dags so special?” I continued. “I know your adult children, Erin and Casey, both sell dags and other antique photos—paper and tintypes—yet you obviously love dags most.”
“They have what I call ‘essence,’” Denny stated with a grin. “Dags have soul. They elicit an emotional response. The minute I open a case when I’m out hunting at an antique store, I know the image inside will either make me smile, laugh, question something, or shock me. That’s good! I buy only the best, in the best condition, and those I truly like. I only purchase if I’d want to keep them for myself. We spend so much time together, these people become my friends. I’m invested in them.”
Denny asked me to pick out several ornately-cased images, so we could discuss them. Tough choice—let me tell you—as these “people” all captivate in their own special way. He showed me how best to hold them, to use tools to look closely, see the smallest details, and hopefully discover their story. We discussed the masters, those taking the photographs, and the people posing. How they would sit for excruciatingly long periods of time in the beginning. No small feat to capture wiggling children or the elderly. (The dead would obviously be the easiest. Metal stands and head braces helped the living) These were true photo artists, until the time shortened to mere seconds when the daguerreotype process improved. Most were created in staged photo parlors, and that enhances the appeal with backgrounds and props, at least for me. Others were taken outdoors. “Hints of how that worked, the lighting, the shadows…leaves a trail of clues to their history,” coached Denny as he showed me more.
I began to understand the rabbit hole this dedicated collector and seller goes down each time he acquires a new dag. The closer I got, the more I fell in love with them. It became greater than just the clarity of the images, but rather the magic of their 3-D “essence” or "soul," as Denny dubbed it. I know that sounds bizarre—for an old, flat image to be three dimensional—yet it’s true.
“You can look at them, tilt the image, and somehow ‘feel around’ them. What the room was like, what the photographer looked like, how he coached them to ‘stand still and don’t breathe,’” Denny revealed. “Maybe it’s my imagination, but… Want to hear something weird?” he went on to ask.
“Of course,” I answered excitedly.
“The coolest thing is if you sit in a dark room with a single candle burning close to you. Stare at the dag you’re holding. The longer you stare, the more you’ll feel it. (Did he just say, “…feel it?”) The image comes to life. Like…it breathes. Try it sometime,” he added with a shrug.
OMG!! Hello…?! You know I’m hooked now!
I’ll finish by telling you something Denny said that sticks with me, something quite haunting. “I own them (these dags),” he admitted. “But they possess me.”
I believe him. Dags are this man’s haunted history.
If you’d like to learn more about purchasing, restoring, or repairing daguerreotypes through Fine Dags, visit www.finedags.com. In-person-visits granted by appointment only.
A word of caution… Fine Daguerreotypes and Photographs is for serious collectors who appreciate condition, quality, content, and historical relevance. Prices range from one hundred dollars to many thousands.
Waters, Dennis. May 29, 2018.
Sincere thanks to Linda Hose for sharing an image from her personal collection.
***Scroll down to see more offerings from Fine Dags. Be sure to view the last one, and tell me... Do you think it's a postmortem of that child?