Category Archives: Ambrotypes

The Last Full Measure: Tintypes/Ambrotypes from the Civil War. Liljenquist Collection at the Library of Congress

For those who haven’t been following this, a few years ago the Liljenquist family (father and three sons) began collecting civil war cased tintypes and ambrotypes. They amassed a collection of over 700 images, of which approximately 10% have been identified. They range in size from 1/9th plate to 1/2 plate, and in subject matter from Union and Confederate soldiers to children, wives, mothers and family members in mourning, officers and enlisted and both slaves and freedmen. The collection is currently on display at the Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. Although small, the display encompasses some 300 images: some two hundred and fifty Union soldiers and their families and some fifty Confederates. One of the most striking images in the collection is the former slave and his family, a wife and two daughters, posed with him in Union uniform. It makes an interesting parallel that 150 years ago, this man was fighting for his freedom, and today, a very similar man with a very similar family sits in the White House, President of a nation radically remade by the sacrifices of that African-American soldier. Other highlights include the little girl dressed in mourning attire, holding a photo of her father who quite possibly she never knew, and the picture of the confederate soldier accompanied by a letter back home to his family describing how he died on the field of battle. A mourning necklace is also on display: the pendant is an oval gutta-percha case containing the photograph while the chain supporting it is woven of human hair, most likely from the woman who made it and whose husband is depicted inside the case.

The collection is astonishing in its scope and specificity, as well as for the collecting acumen displayed by the Liljenquist family. The family still collects at a furious pace, and so the Library has asked them to make their donations quarterly, instead of weekly as they had been doing, to give the curators time to catalog and preserve their donations. The collection in its entirety will be available online through the Library of Congress’ website in the near future.

Link to the collection: The Last Full Measure: The Liljenquist Collection at the Library of Congress

They also have the collection on display on the LoC Flickr feed entitled “Civil War Faces“. They welcome input from the general public as part of the effort to identify the subjects of the photographs.

Some comments on collecting

As I’ve been collecting images, and I do a fair bit of my looking on Ebay, I’ve noticed a couple of interesting albeit off-putting trends. I go back and forth between interest in tintypes, daguerreotypes, and CDVs, with the occasional odd foray into early 20th century images if they include things like cars. In looking for daguerreotype images, I’ve been seeing a lot of what are really very ordinary, common images (no identification of subject or photographer, 1/6 plate to 1/9th plate size, ordinary condition) being listed for astronomical prices ($650 for a 1/6 plate dag? Really?). It’s one of those things that gives you a false impression of the market – seeing all those listings at those stupid prices makes you think that A: your own collection is worth a lot more, and B: if people are listing them for that kind of money, they must be selling for that kind of money. This impression lingers unless you do a search on closed auctions, where you’ll see that most of the successful sales are still in the under $200 range, with the odd exception of some truly rare or exceptional images (1/2 plate, known subject, unusual subject, etc).

Another marketing trend I find a bit odd is the whole “gay interest” tag in the image description. On one level, I get it – the seller is trying to reach out to an under-appreciated market. On the other hand, I question if the people using that tag line understand the “gay interest” thing at all. Two men or two women posing together in the Victorian world did not make them a same-sex couple. They could be siblings, co-workers or just friends. 99% of the time we have zero context to go with any image to make an assessment of the relationships captured in the images. There was no public subculture in the 1850s or even in the 1880s that we would today recognize as analogous to the late 20th/early 21st century gay culture, and as such it would not have been recorded photographically. There is certainly an interest in finding proof of ancestry – “see, we DID exist in the 1850s”. Unfortunately, buying in to the “gay interest” marketing of these images is really just being taken for a ride through ignorance and vulnerability. Don’t get me wrong – it’s certainly fun to speculate what might have been going on behind the scenes of these pictures, and what the relationships of the sitters might be to one another. I have one image in my collection that in the right minds implies no end of off-camera highjinks. But it’s still pure speculation. If you see an image marked “gay interest”, buy it only because you actually like the image, not for any marketing baloney designed to separate more of your hard-earned money from you than is fair.