Daguerrotype of Ralph Keesing

CA. 1848

Daguerrotype of Ralph Keesing. Daguerrotype of Ralph Keesing

One of the most brilliant inventions of the nineteenth century, photography took many decades to perfect. The French inventor Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833) began experimenting with methods of capturing and preserving optical images in the 1790s, but his early attempts soon faded into nothingness. It was not until the mid-1820s that he produced his first long-lasting image. In 1829 he went into partnership with another innovative Frenchman, Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), who continued to refine the process after Niepce's death.

Daguerre discovered that he could create a permanent image from a copper plate coated with silver iodide if it was exposed to light in a camera obscura, then fumed with mercury vapour and finally doused in a solution of common salt. The image could only be viewed at an angle, however, and it required protection from the air and fingerprints by enclosure in a glass-fronted box. Revealed to the public in 1839, Daguerre's invention, dubbed the daguerrotype, immediately proved popular and held sway until the early 1850s, when it was supplanted by more advanced technology devised by English photographer William Fox Talbot.

Although there were daguerrotypists operating in New Zealand in the early colonial period, few examples of their work have survived. The Library has a particularly fine specimen, depicting Ralph Keesing, one of the sons of Henry Keesing (1791-1879), a Jewish merchant, originally from Amsterdam. After thirty years' residence in London, Henry moved his family to Auckland in 1843.

The date of the Keesing image is uncertain, as is the photographer, but assiduous sleuthing in recent years by librarian Keith Giles suggests that it might be the work of Isaac Polack, who for a short period - between 13 May and 18 August 1848 - took daguerreotype portraits in Auckland in rooms above his uncle Joel Samuel Polack's Queen Street store. Only nineteen at the time, Isaac had learned his craft in Sydney from Australia's first professional photographer, George Barron Goodman. He returned to Sydney after his brief tenure in Auckland.

If Giles's surmise is correct, then the Keesing daguerreotype might be New Zealand's earliest surviving photograph. The Polack and Keesing families were certainly on friendly terms in the late 1840s, drawn together by mutual trading interests and their Jewish faith and ancestry. The drawback is that Ralph Keesing, born in London 1831, would have been just seventeen in 1848. As Giles notes, 'He looks older in his portrait, perhaps in his mid-twenties, but at a stretch he could be a hirsute teenager.'

The daguerreotype was given to the Old Colonists Museum in 1920 by the subject's son, Thomas Ralph Keesing. It came to the Library when the museum closed in 1957.

Related resources: The heritage photograph collection; photographers database.

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