A remarkable collection of daguerreotypes by the St. Louis photographer Thomas Easterly illuminates the zest and chaos of city life in the Age of Expansion
Throughout his working life, Thomas Easterly’s St. Louis acquaintances knew him as “the daguerrean,” a title that reflected the man’s stubborn espousal of the first photographic method known in America. Long after his colleagues had adopted newer techniques, Easterly stuck by his belief in its superior qualities. “Save your old Daguerreotypes,” he urged, “for you may never see their like again. … By no other process can so perfect and durable a likeness be produced and every unprejudiced artist will bear testimony to what we assert.”
This contention is borne out by the artist’s views of his adopted city. Born in Vermont in 1809, the itinerant cameraman had made his way to Missouri by 1846, and the following year he turned up in the booming riverfront city he was to make his home. There he took the pictures on the following pages; they represent a sampling of a remarkable collection of his work—nearly four hundred mostly unpublished images owned by the St. Louis Historical Society. Many were deposited there by the artist himself, who regularly donated his daguerreotypes until his pauper’s death in 1882. At one point in the mid-1860's, Easterly sold twelve views to the society for twelve cents each. Despite such financial setbacks, the photographer, a man of staunch self-confidence throughout, may well have suspected that he was saving for posterity a collection of immense value.
It is unlikely that any other public or private owner in America holds such a quantity of daguerrean views of one city taken by one artist. In outdoor scenes, uncontrollable factors of light and weather, undisciplined human models and even more unpredictable animal ones often confounded the early photographer with his primitive equipment. Easterly sought and met this challenge again and again. Although the collection includes some two hundred studio portraits of local citizens, as well as what are probably the earliest known portraits of Plains Indians, his vivid depictions of street life represent Easterly’s finest work.
The mid-century city lives in these ambitious and substantial pictures of its busy harbor, unpaved avenues, elegant homes, and most of all in the proud postures of its people, crowding and surging against one other in an effort to hold center stage in the seconds before the shutter fell. When these lively shades did manage to hold still for their delineator, the steadfast daguerrean rewarded them with the promise of immortality: “Be not alarmed for the safety of a good daguerreotype. It will doubtless outlive you, your children, your grand-children and your great-grandchildren.”