By Mallory Walker
Atheneum Reference Librarian
Today, it’s difficult to walk down Main Street or take a stroll on one of Nantucket’s many walking trails without seeing a photographer – amateur or professional – taking advantage of Nantucket’s natural beauty or historic architecture. A search of Nantucket on any social media platform will produce accounts, groups, and individuals focused solely on capturing life on this far-away island. But before the advent of digital cameras, cell phones, and social media, who was responsible for capturing life on the island?
Nantucket’s 19th Century Photographers
The island of Nantucket appears to have had three individuals leading the way during the advent of photography; Henry Wyer, Harry Platt, and Josiah Freeman. Harry Platt reportedly moved to the island in the late 1880s and shortly thereafter opened a shop on Centre Street. His shop promised “artistic views” and from what remains of Platt’s photographs, he delivered on that promise. Platt’s photos focused on landscapes and the island’s architecture.
Wyer’s photographs focused on the same subjects; his photos of Nantucket’s streets and buildings allow us to envision life on-island before the technological prowess of the 20th century.
Josiah Freeman’s work, however, is set apart from his counterparts for several reasons. Freeman is best known for his stereoscopic cards, a double image on thin cardboard which when viewed through a stereoscope, producing a 3-dimensional image. His stereoscopic photographs allowed viewers to see Nantucket with more depth and realism than a traditional photograph.
Freeman was also unique in the fact that he offered portrait photography, a niche of photography Platt and Wyer did not dabble in. Within the Atheneum’s Special Collections is a velvet-bound photo album featuring the works of Josiah Freeman and other portrait photographers from the mainland. Taken in his Main Street studio, these photographs give life to the history of the island.
Josiah Freeman’s photographs were created using the recently invented albumen printing process. The invention of albumen printing is credited to Louis Blanquart-Evrard who presented the process to the French Academy of Sciences in 1850, though experiments with albumen took place prior.
As its name suggests, albumen printing relies on egg whites which were mixed with either sodium chloride or ammonium chloride, mixed until frothy, left overnight to homogenize, and finally filtered and mixed with water. Watering down the chemical solution allowed for a more matte finish which was, at the advent of albumen printing, more in vogue than a glossy finish. By 1854, pre-treated albumen paper was available commercially, though many photographers still preferred creating the chemical solution themselves.
The Carte-De-Visite & Cabinet Card
The photographic portraits by Josiah Freeman held by the Nantucket Atheneum are predominantly carte-de-visites, though Freeman certainly could have employed different tactics. Patented by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854, cartes were small photographic prints, measuring 2.5 x 4 inches and were affixed to thin sheets of sturdy cardboard.
Though not immediately popular, demand for carte-de-visite soared after cartes of Napoleon III and Princess Eugenie hit the market. As carte-de-visites of celebrities were increasingly sold, laypeople found themselves seeking out their very own cart-de-visites to share amongst friends and family. Soon, photo albums specifically made for carte-de-visites and other card photograph formats – just like the one holding Freeman’s photographs within Nantucket Atheneum’s Special Collections – were available to purchase.
With the introduction of the carte-de-visite, photographers soon offered card photographs in a variety of sizes though it was the cabinet card that ultimately overshadowed the carte-de-visite. Also mounted on cardboard, cabinet cards measure 4 × 5.5 inches. This larger size allowed for more flexibility within the frame, giving portrait sitters more options in terms of posing, backdrop, and props. Sitters for portraits in Josiah Freeman’s studio could choose between seascapes, forest scenes, and upscale interiors. Ultimately, carte-de-visites offered an affordable option for those interested in photographic portraits. As observed by Reader in 1862;
“Here there is no barrier of rank, no chancel end; the poorest carries his three inches of cardboard, and the richest can claim no more.”
Today, we can find carte-de-visites of royalty and celebrities, but also pharmacists, housewives, and sailors, allowing us to better visualize 19th-century life. Josiah Freeman’s albumen carte-de-visites provide us with a peek into everyday life on Nantucket from various perspectives, not just that of the predominant and wealthy.
The 19th Century Photo Album containing Josiah Freeman’s photographs housed in the Nantucket Atheneum’s Special Collections is open to researchers during regular library hours. More of Josiah Freeman’s work can be found at the Nantucket Historical Association and in Josiah Freeman: Nantucket Photographer by Walter & Marilyn Rabetz.
Coddington, Ronald S. “Cardomania!: How the Carte De Visite Became the Facebook of the 1860s.” Military Images, vol. 34, no. 3, Ronald S. Coddington, 2016, pp. 12–17.
Godfrey, Edward K. The Island of Nantucket : What It Was and What It Is : Being a Complete Index and Guide to This Noted Resort : Containing Descriptions of Everything on or about the Island in Regard to Which the Visitor or Resident May Desire Information : Including Its History, People, Agriculture, Botany, Conchology and Geology. Boston : Lee and Shepard ; New York : C.T. Dillingham, 1882. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/islandofnantucke1882godf.
Hannavy, John. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography: A-I, Index. Taylor & Francis, 2008.
Rabetz, Walter, and Marilyn Rabetz. Josiah Freeman,: Nantucket Photographer. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011.
Stulik, Dusan, and Art Kaplan. The Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes: Albumen. 2013.