The following is the second in a series of guest posts by Micah Messenheimer, Assistant Curator of Photography, Prints and Photographs Division that discuss the parallel development of two technologies in the 19th century: railroads and photography. Picking up the story after John Plumbe’s successes as a daguerreotypist and his disappointments in plans for a transcontinental railroad route…
In March 1853, Congress appropriated funds for the wide-ranging Pacific Railroad Surveys to identify “the most economical and practical route for a railroad to the Pacific from the Mississippi” and the feasibility of a winter crossing of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. Prominent among these photographically was General John C. Fremont’s Fifth Expedition (1853-54) along the 38th parallel. The daguerreotypist Solomon Nunes Carvalho traveled as part of the expedition, establishing a model for future photographic documentation as an integral part of survey reporting.
Carvalho was born to a Portuguese-Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1815. It is believed he studied with the Philadelphia portrait painter Thomas Sully during his visits to Charleston in 1841 and 42. By 1853, Carvalho had established galleries displaying both his daguerreotypes and oil paintings in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. He was known as a technical innovator and it’s likely that Fremont requested he join the survey for his understanding of processes to develop daguerreotypes at sub-freezing temperatures.
While Carvalho’s daguerreotypes were reproduced as wood engravings in magazines, his originals were unfortunately lost in a fire. Only one known photograph of the expedition exists—likely a Brady studio copy of Carvalho’s daguerreotype—and it is held by the Prints and Photographs Division. Although the details are hard to pick out in the surviving image, one can glean an impression of life in a Cheyenne village in Kansas Territory.
- Explore John C. Fremont’s memoir (available through HathiTrust.org, from a copy at Cornell University), which includes engravings likely based on Solomon Nunes Carvalho’s lost daguerreotypes.
- Take a tour through the online exhibition, Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America — the section “After Lewis & Clark ” details the surveying done by Fremont and others that developed understanding and development of the continent.
- Delve into the online collection of Railroad Maps from the Geography & Map Division, which includes an article on the transcontinental railroad.