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Greene History Notes: More Thoughts of Daguerreotype Photography

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), sixth President of the United States (1825-1829), and the earliest President to be photographed in 1843.
December 4, 2018 11:39 am Updated: December 4, 2018 11:47 am


Jonathan Palmer’s guest column last week titled “Photography comes to Greene County” brought to mind a daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) taken in 1843 — a year after A. Johns was advertising in the Catskill Messenger that he was available at Van Bergen’s Hotel to take daguerreotypes. Adams was the 6th President of the United States and the earliest President to be photographed.

The image was taken by German-born artist Philip Haas. He traveled to Paris to learn the art of daguerreotype. The technique became available to the public in 1839 and was named for its inventor Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Jonathan Palmer gives a brief description of the process of producing daguerreotypes in his earlier column.

John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was the first President not to have been one of the founding fathers, but he had an illustrious career as a diplomat and politician. It would take a column or two to even briefly describe Adam’s career. Suffice it to say that he served in public office through the administrations of the first 11 Presidents of the United States; George Washington through James K. Polk. He concluded his career as the only former President to serve as a member of Congress, holding that position for 18 years.

We know little about Philip Haas, the pioneering daguerreotypist who captured the image of Adams. According to the website, Haas was born “around 1808” and his date of death is unknown. “With his image of John Quincy Adams in 1843, Haas became the first to produce a lithograph directly from a daguerreotype. In 1844 he moved to New York City (from Washington, D.C.) and established a daguerreian gallery on Broadway.”

An interesting note about his life is included on the website. “In 1861, at the age of 53, Haas lied about his age to enlist with the First New York Engineers, which was sent to South Carolina. Here, he was detailed with Washington Peale to shoot photographs…Weakened by ill health in 1862, he resigned from the army on May 25, 1863 and from there the trail of his life is lost.”

The discussion of daguerreotype photographs also brings to mind West Kill’s (Greene County) Levi Hill who is considered by some to be the father of color photography. By 1851 Hill claimed he had taken the process of black and white daguerreotype photography a step further by introducing color. Many people considered his results fake, but chemical analysis conducted in the last 10 years by researchers affiliated with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and others tended to show that his process did have a crude ability to produce color photography.

Next year will mark the 180th anniversary of the introduction of photography; a short time in human history and a revolutionary phenomenon. It has changed the way we look at the world forever.

Reach David Dorpfeld at