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Samuel A. BemisDr. Samuel A. Bemis, an early Boston daguerreotypist, was born the illegitimate child of Samuel Bemis (1754-1818) and Hazadiah McWain (1769-1854) in Putney, Vermont, on June 27, 1793.
The young Samuel apprenticed to his father in the watch and clockmaking trade in the Keene, New Hampshire, area until 1809 when he moved to the watch shop of Amasa Manley in nearby Putney, Vermont. In early 1812 the then eighteen-year-old Samuel left his family and area of birth and moved to Boston where he continued in the watch trade in the shop of Jonathan McFarlane on Cornhill. This shop was later sold to J. Baldwin and J. Jones who kept the industrious young Bemis on with them at "Baldwin and Jones."
In 1821 Bemis had had enough of the sedentary watch trade and decided his future lay in civil engineering or surveying. His physician, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston Adams (1793-1855), an 1816 graduate of Harvard Medical School, insisted his patient and mechanically-inclined friend would make a superior dentist. As the young Bemis had experience with the tools of dentistry - he had repaired a tooth extractor in Vermont in 1810 and had redesigned Dr. Adams' tooth extractor with success - he accepted his friend and physician's guidance and started in the Dental practice in early 1822.
Bemis became a well respected dentist, receiving requests from New York City and Philadelphia to open a practice there - if only for a few weeks each year. He amassed enough money in his practice to purchase an undeveloped city block in Baltimore, Maryland, and to hold several mortgages in the Boston area. By 1835 he was spending somewhat lavishly on paintings of himself by his School Street neighbors and patients, Chester Harding and Alvan Clark. He became friends with both gentlemen (fly-fishing with Harding and corresponding with Clark). What he might have learned from them regarding artistic composition is unknown.
When François Gouraud came to Boston in the spring of 1840, Bemis probably attended one of the first lectures in late March. On April 1, 1840, he dipped his toe into the photography pool and purchased a camera obscura head from Widdifield and Co., a local optical shop he frequented often. On April 15, 1840, he dove in head-first and purchased a complete Giroux-built daguerreotype outfit and twelve whole-plates from Gouraud for $76 (this outfit and the receipt is at George Eastman House [GEH] in Rochester, NY). His first recorded image (April 19, 1840) is of the King's Chapel and its Burying Ground from his office building on School Street.
Bemis had a penchant for whole-plate images. Of his forty-one extant "plates," thirty-seven are whole-plates and four are quarter-plate-sized silver foil. These silver foil images were exposed with a second camera (also at GEH) that has on its plateholder a scribed area the size of the silver foil used. The three silver foil plates with visible images are from his School Street building of the King's Chapel or the City Hall across the street. The silver foil images are dated from October 1840.
The bulk of the extant images were taken in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the location of Bemis's vacations starting in 1833, and his retirement home after 1861. Of the forty-one images, twenty-two are of NH, twelve are of Boston and seven are of undetermined locations. All images surveyed are laterally reversed and horizontal in format except one which is vertical.
The nineteen GEH images were originally purchased by the Eastman Kodak Company's Eastman Historical Photographic Collection (EHPC) in 1937. These images were loaned to the then-new GEH in 1949. This loan became a gift in 1977. The balance of the extant Bemis images (twenty-two) were sold at the Florence Morey (1886-1978) estate auction in November 1980. (Florence Morey was a second generation legatee of Dr. Samuel A. Bemis.) Of these twenty-two images, nine are known to be in institutional collections. The remaining thirteen are in private collections or unknown collections.
Bemis was active in daguerreotypy until at least the fall of 1843. He also made a daguerreotype photomicrograph of Infusonia (protozoa, cilia, rotifers, etc.) from a sample of water from Bemis Lake (now Sawyer's Pond) in New Hampshire in the early spring of 1854. Bemis notes an evening's discussion with Albert Southworth a few weeks prior to declaring success with this image (image not extant).
Bemis owned land in Hart's Location, New Hampshire in early 1855 having taken ownership of the Mount Crawford House from the previous owner, Nathaniel T.P. Davis. In 1861 Bemis retired from the dentistry profession and moved full-time to his property in NH. He commenced building his new house (currently the Notchland Inn, a B&B) about 1862. He and his staff moved into the house on Christmas Eve 1870.
Bemis took up horticulture in NH as early as 1853. Much of his time was spent on agricultural pursuits - including grafting - on his fifty-acre farm. These grafting experiments apparently paid dividends as he was awarded a silver medal in 1860 from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society for his "Collection of Apples."
Dr. Samuel A. Bemis died on May 22, 1881 in Hart's Location. He is buried in a little cemetery behind the Notchland Inn with Abel & Hannah Crawford and subsequent owners of the property.
Buerger, Janet. "American Landscape Photography From the Nineteenth Century Collection." Image 25, no. 2 (1982): 1-7.
Campbell, Catherine H. "Dr. Samuel Bemis, Renaissance Yankee." Historical New Hampshire 41, no. 3 & 4 (1986): 142-153.
Hoyle, Pamela. "Boston's First Photographers." Photographica/Journal 1, no. 2 (1984): 6-11.
Lowry, Bates and Lowry, Isabel Barrett. The Silver Canvas. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998.
McGrath, Robert L. Gods in Granite. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001.
Newhall, Beaumont. The Daguerreotype In America. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1961.
Rudisill, Richard. Mirror Image: the Influence of the Daguerreotype on American Society. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.
Smart, Charles E. The Makers of Surveying Instruments in America Since 1700. Troy, NY: Regal Art Press, 1962. Mr. Smart did get some things a bit "mixed-up" but does provide a glimpse into another facet of Bemis's life. His explanation of Bemis's middle name has yet to be corroborated.
Varney, Marion. Hart's Location in Crawford Notch. Portsmouth, NH: Peter E. Randall, 1997.
© Robert W. Bermudes, Jr. (2006) - Used with permission
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