Arts Desk

Reviewed: Charles and Henry Meade at the National Portrait Gallery

In the history of American photography, Charles and Henry Meade aren't much more than footnotes.

The Meades were early practitioners of the first popular photographic technique, the daguerreotype; they opened a studio in 1842 in Albany, then moved eight years later to New York City, where the family continued to run a studio, using more modern techniques, until the end of the Civil War.

The National Portrait Gallery’s small exhibit of the Meades’ oeuvre includes a lot of unexciting work, alongside a few real gems.

While daguerreotypes have long been treasured for their clarity and fine detail, many of the Meades’ images are small and murky, and often document such unexciting subjects as buildings. (A festive image of a wedding cake, at bottom, is a welcome exception.)

But the Meades’ daguerreotyping skills reached their apogee with their full-size portraits, notably an 1851 photograph of a regal-looking Sam Houston standing next to a classical column.

The exhibit’s prize images are a pair of daguerreotypes featuring Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, the man who invented the technique used to photograph him (one is shown above). In one of the portraits, the Meades caught Daguerre in a charmingly jovial moment, and the backstory only adds to the images’ appeal. Ironically enough, the father of photography didn’t like to sit for photographs, but the Meades won over a niece of Daguerre’s, who convinced him to cooperate. He died three years later.

The eight Daguerre portraits the Meades made during the sitting are the main reason their work is still remembered today. And for good reason.

The exhibit is on view daily (except Christmas) to June 1 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW.

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