Jerry Spagnoli is a leading expert of the daguerreotype, the earliest form of photography dating back to 1839. His work adapting it to the digital age has earned him a spot among a group of artists dubbed the "antiquarian avant-garde." He has worked with Chuck Close on daguerreotype portraits and nudes, and exhibited his work around the world.
One of Spagnoli's passions is plants, and in the summer of 2000, he met the plant conservationist, gardener and author Amy Goldman. What began as an informal project of photographing Goldman's harvests of heirloom fruits and vegetables on her farm in New York's Hudson Valley blossomed into a 15-year collaboration. The fruits of it now adorn the pages of Heirloom Harvest: Modern Daguerreotypes of Historic Garden Treasures, a book the two published in October featuring 175 daguerreotype images made on Goldman's farm.
Spagnoli says that as the project evolved, he saw an opportunity to create dignified portraits of vegetables and fruits with integrity — varieties like Christmas Pole lima beans, Purple Top White Globe turnips and Crown of Thorns gourds. "In fact, [heirlooms] have always been grown in the ground and usually with a lot of care and attention," he says. "I think that these foodstuffs deserve respect, and respect for their integrity."
I recently caught up with Spagnoli to discuss this long and labor-intensive project. Highlights from our conversation follow, edited for length and clarity.
What is the process for creating a daguerreotype?
A daguerreotype is a photograph image on a sheet of silver-plated copper. The process involves polishing that sliver surface to a mirror finish and then sensitizing it with iodine and bromine to make it light-sensitive. Then that metal plate is put into a view camera — a type of camera that you see in pictures that has an accordion bellows. It's a large-format camera. You make your exposure and then the image is processed and the remaining sensitive silver salts are removed. What's left on the sheet of silver is a deposit of silver crystals, and those silver crystals are the image. To view the image, you have to put something dark in front of the mirror. So it's a rather delicate operation to even view the image but that's one of the charms of it, I think.
How long does the process take from start to finish?
Well, it depends on certain factors, but I think it'd be fair to say it takes about a half an hour.
What drew you to this project?
As a subject matter, these plants are very interesting, and I had always been interested in plant structures just for my own amusement. This gave me the opportunity to really do a comprehensive project. I thought that was very exciting. And they did render beautifully.
Were there any specific challenges you faced when photographing the heirlooms?
Early on, Amy would send me down samples from her harvest and, quite often, they would be things like squashes or tomatoes or fruits. Those would hold up very well coming down to my studio from her place, which is about two hours upstate New York. But some of the things, because of the length of the exposure that'd I'd be using, would actually begin to wilt during the exposure. So I would be there with, you know, in some cases a half an hour exposure, and I would end up with this trail of a wilting plant. So that was a problem. I surmounted that by resorting to making a large format negative of the image, which allowed me to make a much shorter exposure and then using that negative to produce the daguerreotype plate.
Some of the photos in the book have tints of blue. Is this a technique that has been around or did you create it?
Well, the blue is inherent in a daguerreotype. When you overexpose a daguerreotype it shifts blue. As I mentioned, the image itself is these little granules of silver and when you overexpose the plate, the granules of silver kind of mount up and then they refract light in a blue wavelength. So there's no actual blue on the plate as if it were like a color per se. In the 19th century, that was actually considered to be a grievous flaw in a plate and a sign of incompetence because you're supposed to be able to control those things. But I like the look.
Do you have a favorite photo, or photos, from the book?
Well one that seems to be popular just generally is one called a white currant; it has some of that blue solarization in the background. That's a particularly nice one. That one of the head of cabbage is fantastic. There's one of the apple tree that's at the beginning of Amy's essay. It's just this kind of abundance of apples in this bulging tree. It's really quite extraordinary.
What was the most surprising aspect of this project?
The fact that it ended up being a book. When we started it, Amy just had this idea that she thought daguerreotypes were really nice and that she thought it would be interesting to have these images made. It would just be something for her to have — something for the house and to some extent for the legacy of the farm. And it wasn't until, I don't know, maybe three or four years ago that we realized that it needed to be a book and that we should aim for that. So we started being more attentive to a lot of the images that would help to tell the full story and not just photographing individual objects.
What would you like people to take away from this book?
I'd like to think that people would think about these heirloom vegetables as important to the history of mankind. We depend on these fruits and vegetables for our sustenance ... and I like to think that the book represents a gesture of respect for that legacy. We should always be attentive to the fact that these are important for the survival of humanity and that it's not something that should be taken lightly. These aren't things that are produced in factories or are man-made. These are the organisms in their own right, and I think that coming to terms with that helps us come to terms with ourselves and our own place in nature.