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Alyssa C. Salomon 

Creation Story

Born: Brooklyn, N.Y., 1960
Education: B.A. Studio Art, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1982; M.B.A., Finance, University of Chicago, 1987
Artistic Medium: Daguerreotypes
Where you can see her work: At Astra Design, 3141 W. Cary St., in "The Imagined Life of Things: Fifteen New Daguerreotypes" through Jan. 26.

What she photographs: Salomon's daguerreotypes depict an imagined reality she creates by arranging small-scale objects into scenes that suggest 19th-century studio portraits, travel pictures, scenic views and souvenirs. For example, she might arrange a 4-inch Everyman figurine she calls "Dante" in front of a vintage photograph of a Roman piazza. The resulting image calls to mind a typical travel photo — of a wholly imagined place.

"I have always been interested in photographs as things, and the things we save, and how things have meaning," she says. "I'm interested in how you read objects of memory, particularly photographs. Something is better when you have a photograph of it. … Photographs transform things. … Photographs are like the Uber-souvenir."

Why she makes daguerreotypes? Salomon, who used to work with traditional silver print photographs, was drawn to the 19th-century daguerreotype process in 2000 because, she explains, "I wanted to make more than a photographic image of a thing. I didn't want people to say, 'That's a nice image.' I wanted people to say, 'That's a nice thing.'"

Salomon believes daguerreotypes, which are positive photographic images formed on the surface of a mirrorlike silver-plated copper plate, are "the ultimate photographic object." With a daguerreotype, unlike with conventional photography, there is no negative of the image. The plate is the only record of the image.

How she makes daguerreotypes: French artist Jacques Mande Daguerre invented the daguerreotype technique in 1839, resulting in the world's first photograph. The daguerreotypes Salomon makes today are no different than those made in the 1840s and 1850s. During the daguerreotype's heyday, thousands of people practiced the craft. Today, less than 50 photographers produce "dags," as they are known in the parlance. Salomon learned how to make daguerreotypes from New York daguerreotypist Jerry Spagnoli at a class at the Penland School of Crafts in Penland, N.C.

First, Salomon sends copper plates to a plater to be plated with pure silver. Once they are coated, she handles the plates meticulously and buffs them to a perfect mirror finish. Next, she sensitizes the plate by exposing it to iodine vapor from purple-blue iodine crystals inside a sealed fume box. "The iodine creates a layer on top of the silver that is light sensitive," she says. "It is like alchemy." The process can take up to an hour, depending on heat and humidity.

Once the plate has been sensitized, she loads it into a retrofitted film pack of a mid-century 4-by-5 Super Graphic press camera. She then photographs her image — which she has spent at least an hour setting up — using an exposure of 8 to 12 minutes.

Salomon uses only natural light and usually works outside in her driveway. "Because I'm using daylight it forces me to use the conventions of lighting of the 19th century," she says. She sets up her images in a portable studio she has created on a rolling cart.

Salomon develops the plate by exposing it to bright light through an amber filter, after which she washes away the plate's unexposed silver surface. What's left is an image composed of silver salts that have been formed on the plate's surface through a chemical reaction with light. Salomon fixes a piece of glass over the plate to protect the image from tarnish and fingertips. Without the glass cover, she says the image is as fragile as the powder on a butterfly's wings.

The resulting daguerreotype is a magical object where the image seems to both float and penetrate the plate's mirrored surface in astonishing detail. Because the plates are so shiny they reflect light, making them sometimes difficult to see without adjusting your position or using a piece of black paper to block the glare.

"It's a one-person experience," Salomon says. "It's like somebody whispering."

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