Alfred Brisbois. William F. Cody "Buffalo Bill", late 1880s.
Albumen print, 6 1/2 x 4 1/2 in.

Dawn’s Early Light: The First 50 Years of American Photography

October 20, 2011 – May 27, 2012
Hirshland Exhibition Gallery in Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University

This exhibition documents the momentous first half-century of photography in America, which embraced and transformed the new technology to create, as Walt Whitman once observed, “the best history—a history from which there could be no appeal.” 

In 1839 Louis Daguerre in France and Fox Talbot in England unveiled their independent inventions of the first photographic processes. Later that year, these technologies reached American entrepreneurs, both famous and forgotten, who experimented with and perfected the revolutionary medium. Technological, commercial, and artistic competition transformed photography from an expensive and cumbersome novelty into an irresistible and pervasive medium for documentation and historical change.

Through photographs, ephemera, and original publications, this exhibition explores photography during its first fifty years, featuring examples of the earliest photographic processes and multiple stages of its technological evolution. From this look at photography’s early technical development, another story emerges: that of the dynamic and complex relationship between the new photographic medium and the turbulent historic currents that shaped the American nation.

The nineteenth century bore witness to the simultaneous maturation of both photography and America. The photographs that survive from this period reflect the far-reaching changes then transforming the lives of American citizens—mass production, the rise of a middle class, social reform, the Civil War, emancipation, mass media, image-based electoral politics, and celebrity culture. These social forces shaped, and were shaped by, photography.

Photography changed the course of American history. Abraham Lincoln, referring to both the most famous photographer of the time and his own pivotal 1860 campaign speech, declared that, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President.” The new visual medium gave Americans an intimate view of far-away people, places, and events and a new and historic connection to their fellow citizens and national leaders. More than a century later, these images continue to provide “the best history—a history from which there could be no appeal.” 

This exhibition represents a selection of photographs and related materials generously donated to Cornell University from the Stephan and Beth Loewentheil Family Photographic Collection.

The exhibition and related events have been funded by generous support from the Loewentheil Family, by the Stephen ’58, MBA ’59 and Evalyn Edwards ’60 Milman Exhibition Fund, and by Gail ’56 and Stephen Rudin.

Information for visitors

You may also view the online version of this exhibition.