33 Mid-19th Century Photographs Decaying In Beautiful And Haunting Ways

Published March 16, 2017
Updated March 21, 2019

Whether the subject was a U.S. president or an unidentified commoner, these Mathew Brady photos are breaking down in gorgeous ways.

Mathew Brady Andrew Jackson
Nathaniel Hawthorne Half Length Daguerreotype
Unidentified Woman In Theatrical Costume
Dots Dress Woman
33 Mid-19th Century Photographs Decaying In Beautiful And Haunting Ways
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Between 1844 and 1860, so-called father of photojournalism Mathew Brady created hundreds of daguerreotypes of presidents, politicians, soldiers, and the upper crust of American society in Washington, D.C., and at his highly successful and influential studio in New York City.

But because the daguerreotype method — exposing highly polished and fumed silver in a camera and then sealing the results behind glass — was cheaper than painted portraits, many common folk could also afford to have their likeness captured in such a manner.

Regardless of the wealth of the subject, Brady couldn't prevent the highly sensitive daguerreotype from decaying if the image was mishandled or exposed to the elements.

Even an innocent thumbprint or the lightest of scratches will linger forever on a daguerreotype. And if unsheathed in extreme temperatures, they may become adulterated beyond recognition, resembling spooky 21st-century horror movie posters or frenetic mid-20th century abstract expressionist paintings more than somber, mid-19th century monochrome portraits.

Starting in the 1850s, far less-sensitive ambrotypes and tintypes, which were also cheaper and easier to manufacture, began to crowd the daguerreotype out. By the 1870s, the method was almost abandoned completely.

Of the thousands of daguerreotypes created by Brady and his acolytes during this short time, many have been well-preserved, giving us some of the earliest photographic likenesses of luminaries such as Abraham Lincoln and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" author Washington Irving.

But many more were either lost to time or forever altered through carelessness or a sense of thrift (gardeners, in particular, were fond of re-purposing the glass for their greenhouses).

The gallery above features a selection of Mathew Brady daguerreotypes housed in the Library of Congress that are, arguably, no worse for their extreme wear. There is a literal decay of the original image, true, but what results is a flourishing of a new, unintended form, beautiful and haunting in its rhapsodic takeover of the oblivious subject underneath, and no less rewarding for its accidental conception.

Enjoy early photography like the above from Mathew Brady, especially if it's a little spooky? Try a gallery of Victorian-era portraits that reveals why the subjects typically didn't smile.

Kellen Perry
Kellen Perry is a veteran writer on topics including television, history, music, art, video games, and food. His work has also appeared on Grunge, Ranker, and Looper.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Perry, Kellen. "33 Mid-19th Century Photographs Decaying In Beautiful And Haunting Ways." AllThatsInteresting.com, March 16, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/mathew-brady-daguerreotypes. Accessed June 21, 2024.