IOWA CITY — One of the earliest photographs of Iowa City’s Old Capitol is an 1854 daguerreotype showing the stately limestone building — now the heart of a bustling college town — as it once was, a grand, but solitary structure, surrounded by white picket fence and dirt roads.
This image, and many others of its time, are featured in a new exhibit, “Faces of Iowa Through the Early Lens,” at the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City.
The exhibit, which runs through May 20, is about early photography, but it’s also about the photographers who lived and worked in Iowa City, capturing images of the growing city and its citizens. The main photographer featured is Isaac Wetherby, a painter who bought his first camera in 1841 and later opened a photo studio in downtown Iowa City.
Kathrine Moermond, education and outreach coordinator for the Old Capitol Museum, collaborated on the exhibit with Marybeth Slonneger, an Iowa City historian who wrote the book, “Wetherby’s Gallery: Painting, Daguerreotypes & Ambrotypes of an Artist.” Moermond read the book soon after its release in 2006 and was struck by how Wetherby’s records of who he photographed told a broader story.
“It was Iowa City’s history,” she said.
There are tintype “gems,” postage-stamp size photos, of Iowa soldiers heading off to fight in the Civil War. There also are photos of William and Hannah Maxon, who provided shelter near Springdale for John Brown, an American abolitionist who made trips through Iowa to help slaves escape to Canada. A photo of a rare 1864 Abraham Lincoln campaign banner, painted by Wetherby, shows the banner may have been recycled because “Hamlin,” Lincoln’s 1860 running mate, is visible under the name “Johnson.”
The UI exhibit has a kids’ wall with dozens of black-and-white studio portraits showing adorable, if unsmiling, children Wetherby photographed in their nicest clothes, undoubtedly to make their parents happy.
Some particularly fragile photos and items will appear in shorter rotations. From Nov. 3-19, the museum will display the images of Esther L. Worden, including what curators believe is the first photograph taken in Iowa City, around 1846.
Some of Wetherby’s equipment, donated by his daughter, Carrie, to the State Historical Society of Iowa, is on display in the UI exhibit. A nine-lens plate was used in the 1880s to make multiple exposures of the same image, rather like “wallet” photos. Wetherby’s Ideal Portrait Lens No. 2 by Burke and James from the 1890s still has its original box.
Visitors to the UI exhibit can experiment with a NeoLucida, a modern drawing aid modeled after the camera lucida Wetherby used. The devices use mirrors and angles to cast the superimposed image of a nearby object — in the UI exhibit, a vase of flowers — onto paper for tracing.
Even with photography’s growing popularity in Wetherby’s time, portraits and other paintings still were quite popular, Moermond said.
“When his son, Charles, took over the photography business, Isaac Wetherby went back to painting,” she said.
IF YOU GO
What: Faces of Iowa Through the Early Lens, an exhibit of early photography
Where: Keyes Gallery for Arts, Humanities & Sciences in the Old Capitol Museum, 21 Old Capitol, Iowa City
When: Through May 2
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday
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