Thomas Martin Easterly
The daguerrotype process was invented in France between 1829-39, by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (personally, I feel like Niépce was a bit robbed in the process, but I digress). In 1842, John Ostrander opened the first daguerrotype gallery in St. Louis. In 1848, Ostrander’s operation was ceded to Thomas Martin Easterly, a New York City-trained Daguerreian. By this time, the popularity of the daguerrotype process was strong on the East Coast, yet sparse, but growing, in areas further away. The practice would eventually achieve its greatest popularity in the United States, where technological developments fueled its canonization. Even as other quicker, cheaper and reproducible forms of photography were invented (and achieved photographic prominence in Europe), Americans remained largely fixated on the daguerreotype. Among those who stayed firmly committed to the process was T. M. Easterly.
T. M. Easterly was born in 1809 and died in 1882. The daguerrotype gallery that he took over from Ostrander grew to become the most prominent such business in the Midwest, and his renown extended internationally. More than just a sought-after portraitist, Easterly is thought by some to be the first photographer to capture a likeness of a Plains Indian, and is recognized by many scholars to be among the first photographers of lightning (see below).
Easterly’s daguerrotypes of St. Louis persons and events are an important component to our understanding of local history. Most notably, his images of the aftermath of the St. Louis Fire in 1849, and the deconstruction and removal of “Big Mound” are the best surviving documents of those events. As well, his pictures of levee life, the construction of the new courthouse, and downtown streets/businesses are rivaled by few. His decision to juxtapose industry against nature in many images, suggested concerns regarding human encroachment, and were light-years ahead of his time.
Easterly’s daguerrotype gallery persisted until the demand for other, newer types of photography eventually drove business away from his doors. His death in 1882, closed the chapter on one of the world’s grandest champions of the daguerrotype (and on one of the few practitioners to attempt to inject some “art” into the documentation business). His photo studio, which was one of a tiny few when he took it over, became prominent among peers numbering over a 1000 in St. Louis at the time of his death*.
A nice KETC video featuring Easterly: