The First-Ever Solar Eclipse Photographs at the Met

Eclipse of the Sun, 1854 by William Langenheim and Frederick Langenheim
Metropolitan Museum of Art
August 18th, 2017

William Langenheim (American, born Germany, Schöningen 1807–1874) and Frederick Langenheim (American, born Germany, Schöningen 1809–1879), Eclipse of the Sun, 1854, Daguerreotype. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005.

On Friday August 18th, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled seven treasures from its collection, the first-ever photographs taken of a solar eclipse that took place in the United States on May 26th, 1854.  Since its founding in 1776, America has seen 20 solar eclipse events, but none of the occasions had been documented photographically due in large part to the fact that the camera had not been invented until 1839, when the daguerreotype was the primary means of image reproduction.

This particular collection of tiny, gold-framed plates are extremely unique due to their miniaturized scale of such a magnificent event.  The photographers, William and Frederick Langenheim, were brothers and in this case were forced to use the smallest cameras due to the lack of natural light available.  And yet these 2-inch and 1-inch square copper sheets bear a shiny, silver-plated finish that shows the result of a chemical interaction between light and darkness, resulting in showing the moon’s dark silhouette as it gradually covers the earth’s view of the sun. These seven dark oval portraits of the sky show the unfolding of an actual event and marked a new beginning in American photography.  

William Langenheim (American, born Germany, Schöningen 1807–1874) and Frederick Langenheim (American, born Germany, Schöningen 1809–1879), Eclipse of the Sun, 1854, Daguerreotype. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005.

 

“Photography was still a brand new language,” stated Jeff Rosenheim, the Curator-in-Charge of the Department of Photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It was very transformative.  It revealed the horrors of war and the truth of slavery.”  By 1841 the brothers had established a daguerreotype studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.   In the years before the Civil War, the Langenheim brothers had traveled across the terrain of the United States taking scenic pictures of different landscape panoramas that had not yet been seen by most Americans.

However the Langenheims’ pursuit of documenting the solar eclipse and its totality about a decade later was definitely a high-point since they were no longer chasing light, but darkness.  Rosenheim suggested that several cameras were used to document this single, once-in-a-lifetime event. Even so, the 8th copper plate from this collection, most likely containing the moment of totality, is missing and quite possibly represents the indistinguishable, black view of the moon over the sun.