Ramblings and Recollections

Matt Isenburg

US Navy WW2 veteran Matt Isenburg developed a life-long interest in History while earning a Bachelor's degree at Northwestern University. He has written many articles and co-authored one of the first books about collecting photographica (1978). In 1989, some 200 daguerreotypes from his collection were exhibited at the Yale Art Gallery. The hard-cover catalog for this exhibition totalled 127 pages. The same year, he co-founded the well respected Daguerreian Society with John Wood.

Selections from his collection have been displayed at numerous American museums and galleries, including the recent Young America exhibit at George Eastman House. A guest lecturer at many well known institutions, Isenburg was nominated and accepted in 2005 as a member of the prestigious invitation-only American Antiquarian Society. His collection includes images, many rare and unequalled anywhere, Daguerreian and Wet-plate cameras, thousands of books on photography and a like number of manuscripts. Some of his collecting stories and experiences are the basis of his talk this evening. He is joined by his lovely wife Elizabeth who shares his enthusiasm for photographica.

Matt Isenburg sitting for a Lansdale portrait Sep 2005
Matt Isenburg


The very presentation medium Matt chose speaks volumes. He made an animated power point show using images already tuned with Photoshop and stored on his lap-top. He mentioned to the audience that he completely rewrote his talk in 12 hours after arriving in Toronto, and did a dry run with Mike Robinson the afternoon before our meeting. An amazing testament to virtues of keeping up with technology and making good use of the capabilities of this digital era.  

Each of Matt's nine stories have enough plot and suspense for a TV program or short story. Together, they give an insight into the art of collecting rare antiquities. The first seven tell a tale of acquiring rare images and artefacts. The eighth illustrates how a love of history, photography and technology can be combined to bring local history alive. The final story, which belongs to wife Elizabeth, demonstrates how perseverance and a willingness to search in depth can unearth amazing finds.

Photographica by Klamkin and Isenberg 1978
Matt's opening screen
box set of daguerreotypes

It Only Took 25 Years. Matt began with a story of Ambrotypes sold as "cased" - the case turns out to be a cardboard box. This introduces us to the marketing used by 19th century photographers and in particular the ads photographers place on the back of images. Showing a variety of these ads, including one Canadian, he focussed in on one with a wood-cut of a two lens daguerreotype camera.

At a 1980 meeting in Boston, Matt was approached by collector who showed him a daguerreotype of a daguerreotype camera. Such images are very rare. The owner held it so only Matt could see the picture. Matt offered to buy the image if it was ever for sale. Next meeting, Matt noticed the image owner showing his daguerreotype to someone else in the same secretive manner. Matt wrote him off as wanting attention, not a sale.

25 years later, a Boston dealer familiar with Matt's collecting interests, insisted on dropping in to show him an unusual daguerreotype. It was an image of a two lens camera - the same image Matt last saw in 1980! Sold.

Matt noted that the fantasy wheels in the woodcut were likely added by the engraver to make the camera look more interesting. There was such a wheel in the daguerreotype image -- it was to adjust the tripod height.

Woodcut of Daguerreotype camera
Daguerreotype of a camera

The Case of the Missing Case. In this story, Matt introduced us to the world of union case collectors. Union cases are moulded thermoplastic holders of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. Various designs and silhouettes were displayed on the cases, including numerous short runs depicting special events or famous individuals. Case collectors are like stamp collectors -- checking one another out on rare holdings in a round of one-upmanship. This set the punch-line.

Specially engraved cases were made to celebrate events. One of rarest cases shows the silhouette of US senator Henry Clay (1777 - 1852). One day Matt was called by a coin collector who had picked up a case mould which he wished to sell. Matt recognized it as the mound used to make one of the two versions of the Henry Clay case (they differ only in the addition of a dotted outline). Matt decided to follow-up on an old lead for a Clay case. The collector, now in his 80s was selling his collection through his daughter. Remembering after the purchase that there were two versions of the case, Matt had to wait delivery to see if he bought the one to match his mould. He did. So now, if a case collector should ask Matt if he has a Clay case, Matt can respond, "Yes, and do you have the mould?"

Henry Clay case and mould

Junk in the Attic. Forbes Magazine wrote up Matt and his collection a few years ago in an article called "America in Amber". The morning the magazine hit the newsstands, Matt received a call from a lady claiming to own some of "those valuable pictures". He was concerned that it was a trick until an elderly lady and her husband showed up with a small box of daguerreotypes.

The images showed a wealthy young New Englander, Moses Warren, and his trip to the California gold rush in 1850. Valuable indeed! It was the old story of descendents clearing out a house and throwing out the junk in the attic. The cleaning lady was told she could keep or toss the unwanted goods. She took the images to a vintage clothing store. There she was told such images were of little or no value and she sold them to an acquaintance. A few years later, the Forbes article came out and the couple who bought the images contacted Matt.

The daguerreotypes are a rare record of the California gold rush. They are so sharp that in one outdoors scene you can not only read the sign over a restaurant window, but with a magnifying glass you can read the names of the sign painters in the lower corner of the sign.

Warren's c1850 cabin and wagon
Moses Warren

Hey, you forgot the enlarger. Matt collects Southworth of Southworth and Hawes fame. One Friday, an engineer friend over in New Haven called. The engineer's neighbour was loading his station wagon to head off to the Brimfield Flea Market - a huge outdoor facility in Massachusetts. One item was a camera marked Southworth pat. 1855, Simon Wing pat. 1860. The owner planned to ask $300 for it. Matt arrived at the address 38 minutes later as the dealer packed the last box in his old Plymouth wagon. No, he didn't want to unpack down to the camera. Matt could see the name through the side window and showed the dealer he was willing to pay the $300 in cash.

As Matt talked, he slowly unpacked the vehicle in front of the owner. Finally, he was within one chair of his prize and ready to buy the chair too if he had to break it to move it. He pulled out the Southworth camera, paid the owner, and got into his car to leave before dealer had second thoughts. As he started to move, the dealer ran up holding another camera on its end, shouting, "Hey mister, you forgot the enlarger". The "enlarger" turned out to be a rare full plate daguerreotype camera with lens!

trio of Daguerreotype cameras full, half, and quarter plate

An eBay Incident. The last story was a tale of success on eBay as told by Matt and Elizabeth. For years, Matt has searched for a 19th century outdoor studio sign with no success. Elizabeth helps Matt search the web for various images and artifacts of photography's early days. When she searches, she reads every page of links returned by Google. This particular search was for CDV cards. On the 67th page of returns one item listed an outdoor sign. The fine detail in the extract included the letters CDV.

She showed the item to Matt. Intrigued, he successfully bid for it. The sign was for Weitfle's Photograph Gallery in Dover, NJ, and was decorated with CDVs. Interestingly, Matt was contacted later by the grandson of Weitfle who wanted to purchase the sign. Matt offered to swap for a similar sign from another gallery if the grandson ever finds one.

Weitfle's Photographic Gallery outdoor sign

Digital Studio

Matt answers questions from the floor

Matt's stories are not only entertaining, but educational as well. They offer the listener valuable advice on how to succeed in finding and acquiring interesting pieces: Develop a good network of pickers; become known for your area of interest; know the value of an item and when to withdraw from bidding against competition with deep pockets; and finally work with your spouse to help in sourcing things.

Check out Matt's tie

If you bump into Matt, ask him how he managed to get rare images of the original US Capitol building and White House; or how being a resident of Connecticut helped him win an unusual daguerreotype cabinet in an auction of whaling and ivory articles; or how he managed to get three different sizes of postage stamp cameras used to make multiple tintype images in one sitting; or how he teaches local history using the computer to cleverly match "then and now" images of landmarks and buildings.

Patience is a virtue when having a likeness taken...
Perhaps this pose will satisfy Mr Lansdale?

After the presentation, Matt and Elizabeth chatted with the audience and Bob Lansdale did one of his commemorative portraits using a Nikon D70 and a few willing hands to manage the lighting.

The illustrations under 'Images' in the right sidebar were captured from the screen with a Sony F828 during Matt's presentation and subsequently cleaned up in Photoshop CS2. Contents and images are ©2005 Matt Isenburg and may not be used without his permission. The bottom images under 'Digital Studio' show Bob Lansdale capturing Matt's portrait for use in the journal and E-Mail newsletter. These images are ©2005 PHSC. Click on any small image to see it larger in a separate window.

Bob Carter

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