• August 31, 2015

Yosemite in Blue: An Antique Process Unlocks an Artist’s Vision

Becky Harlan

Standing in front of photographer Binh Danh’s daguerreotype of Yosemite Falls, on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., I saw myself staring back through the image.

If you look at a daguerreotype in person (unfortunately you can’t tell on a screen), you can see your reflection in the silver plate. At first I tried to move off to the side to get an unobstructed view, until I realized that being confronted with my reflection might be part of the experience. It turns out that this is exactly what Danh had in mind. “Conceptually, I hope one contemplates the land in relationship to one’s body and even identity.”

Daguerreotype of a reflection in the Merced River in Yosemite Valley
Reflection in the Merced River

As a child, Danh would pore over “magical and mysterious” photos of Yosemite. But as an adult, they paralyzed him. “Those photographs kept me away from visiting the park,” he says. “It seemed all views of Yosemite had been taken and there was no more that I could say about it.”

Daguerreotype of a Sugar Pine Tree, Yosemite, California
Sugar Pine Tree, Yosemite, California

Danh’s family left Vietnam when he was a child, relocating to San Jose, California, which is only a four-hour drive from Yosemite. At that time, though, the park felt like it existed in a different universe. “My parents wouldn’t know how to get there, and if they did want to go, closing our TV repair shop for a day was out of the question. I was left,” he says, “to only visiting Yosemite in photographs.”

Daguerreotype of Yosemite Falls, California
Yosemite Falls
daguerreotype of El Capitán, a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park
El Capitán

That all changed when Danh decided to learn a new photographic process, one of the first ever invented: the daguerreotype. Historically, they were mostly used to capture portraits of loved ones on a handheld scale, but Danh realized he could push the boundaries of that small scale to take in new kinds of views. “I realized that there was a whole genre of photography to explore with this medium: landscape photography.” He finally had the angle he needed to take on Yosemite.

Daguerreotype of an overhanging rock at Glacier Point in Yosemite
Overhanging Rock, Glacier Point

One of the first things you’ll notice about these images is that they’re kind of blue. But they’re not hand-colored or toned post-process. Daguerreotypes are naturally sensitive to blue and ultraviolet light, meaning the brightest spots, like the sky or a waterfall, take on a blue tint when overexposed.

daguerreotype of cathedral rock and cathedral spires
Cathedral Rocks and Cathedral Spires

Danh spent his whole life in the shadow of a black-and-white Bridalveil Falls, as pictured by iconic photographers like Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams. By adopting a new-to-him historic process, he unlocked a visual language to reimagine an iconic American symbol. A language that creates space for the awestruck, the curious, or even just the passerby to find themselves in the landscape.

[Read about Carleton Watkins’s iconic images of Yosemite on Proof.]

Daguerreotype of Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite, California
Bridalveil Fall

Danh’s family history of migration continues to impact his work as an artist; it’s part of what fascinated him about the parks to begin with. “This quote by Carl Pope from the Ken Burns’ PBS series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea sums up my feeling of the Yosemite series,” he says:

“My sense is that our special connection with the national parks comes from the fact that we’re a nation of immigrants. We’re a nation of people for whom this is not our home, and the national parks are what anchor and root us on this continent. They are the meaning of home for many of us. They’re what it means to be an American, to inhabit this continent. It’s at the end of the immigrant experience, and they’re what take you and say, ‘Now I am an American.’”

Binh Danh’s daguerreotypes are on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as part of the exhibition “The Memory of Time,” from May 3 to September 13, 2015.

See more of Binh Danh’s work on his website.

There are 33 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Shannon
    April 8, 2016

    I find these images to be very well done and dramatically beautiful. Most of us who have studied historical processes would have known that Daguerreotypes create mirror images of the object photographed, but yes probably would not of been a bad idea to include that in the article. That being said, I do not think that takes away from the beauty of these images nor the keen eye and wonderful technique of Bihn Dahn’s work here, I think it just makes us as the viewer take a closer look at what his eyes were trying to capture. This is a very well done project and very much reminds me of what Jerry Spagnoli was trying to accomplish with his work.

  2. Jack Lavelle
    October 7, 2015

    (I tried to comment but I think I missed the robot box, so here goes again)

    These are dramatic images; they convey the sheer, mysterious and fatal beauty of the sharp cliffs and long waterfalls.

    Anyone who is slagging these plates for somehow being substandard must be missing the point of the exercise; these are daguerreotypes. They were used in the Civil War! The technology is a bit primitive, but in the right hands it can produce great images. I believe Mr Danh has succeeded.

    His aim could not have been to produce images more beautiful than Ansel Adams. That is a fool’s quest.

    But to bum Mr Danh’s images and NatGeo for this display is a bit like dinging the Picasso kid because he can’t draw people very well.

  3. Barbara Necker
    September 22, 2015

    MUST we destroy this beauty? I think not!

  4. Frederick J. Fisher
    September 15, 2015

    Great historic photos, but all are “in reverse” (or backwards). NGS should have noted this error.

    • Becky Harlan
      September 15, 2015

      Hi Frederick, you have a good eye. Daguerreotypes create mirror images rather than exact copies. But you’re right, it would have been a good point to include in he post. Thanks for pointing it out.

  5. J. Bruce
    September 14, 2015

    Beautiful and unique images. I find the textures, lines and shapes of the rock faces and trees are wonderfully highlighted with this technique.

  6. Joan Hobbs
    September 14, 2015

    The standards for National Geograpic photography have reached a new low. This is among the worst retouching I’ve seen anywhere. FAIL.

  7. Russell Branham
    September 14, 2015

    My dad first took our family to Yosemite in 1929. It became my favorite National Park and my family have returned many times since. These pictures just added another dimension my experience of this wonderful park.

  8. michael john warren
    September 14, 2015

    One of my sons went to Yosemite this Spring and sent back to the UK many photos; they were great, but these are amazing.A talented young man.The whole of the USA is now your canvas, go for it.

  9. Jean
    September 14, 2015

    Brings back wonderful memories of our visit to Yosemite – since then my husband has died so the photographs are even more meaningful and poignant – truly wonderful photography.

  10. Robert Stagg
    September 14, 2015

    Superb images. Would love to know how the colour elements were achieved.

  11. Pat M
    September 14, 2015

    Brilliant !!!!

  12. Michael
    September 13, 2015

    Very engaging. The effect draws one in and evokes a nostalgic sensibility. Thank you.

  13. Bruce D. Griffiths Sr.
    September 13, 2015

    Their is something both mysterious and beautiful about Mr. Dahn’s creations. They have a Tolkien like feeling about them. The Middle Earth.

  14. Sotiris Papadimas
    September 13, 2015

    You ‘re talking seriously ? Auful ! Just auful pictures !

  15. Murilo
    September 13, 2015

    “Overhanging Stone” is very similar to a rough flying bird.

  16. Noel Clark
    September 13, 2015

    I just made a visit to Yosemite. Your photos are spectacular vision into this majestic environment. Thank you for your persistence.

  17. lucia parretti. Italy
    September 13, 2015

    beautiful photos,very artistic and a very good idea, too. I wonder if Mr. Binh Danh developed the photos in his own lab.

  18. Verna Browning
    September 13, 2015

    I have visited Yosemite, your photos remind me of those wonderful views. Thanks

  19. AW Jones
    September 13, 2015

    Truly beautiful and haunting images. Thank you.

  20. Diane Xagoraris
    September 13, 2015

    Absolutely exquisite!! Jewels, each one!!

  21. M Habibul Rahman
    September 13, 2015

    Great photos..

  22. Elsa
    September 13, 2015

    Sugar Pine brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know why. Every picture is beautiful. Thank you.

  23. rina
    September 13, 2015

    Your photos make me want to go back to Yosemite!

  24. Qoetoo
    September 13, 2015

    Wow. Brilliant. And stunning. Gracias!

  25. André Vandergeten
    September 13, 2015

    We visited Yosemite on our first trip to the US in the late 60ties . Sweet memory being it in blue .

  26. Janet R.
    September 13, 2015

    Your pictures are beautiful. You have succeeded in showing Yosemite in a different light. Please turn your attention to Yellowstone NP and Glacier NP. Both are amazing places too.

  27. Patricia Seaton
    September 11, 2015

    Your photography is just beautiful. I am indeed seeing Yosemite with new eyes. The technique shines in all of these photos. And, for me, the photo of Overhanging Rock is particularly compelling – one can FEEL the depth here.

  28. Alex
    September 8, 2015

    Thank you for sharing those amazing pictures, I am considerate myself very lucky I have seen Yosemite and is just amazing

  29. Daniel white
    September 5, 2015

    I have grown up with posters of El capitán all over my room your picture made feel like I was seeing it for the first time again

  30. Donna
    September 1, 2015

    Gorgeous! Makes me want to go to Yosemite.

  31. Andrew
    August 31, 2015

    Thank you Mr. Dahn for your beautiful daugguerotypes. I’m the grandson of an immigrant too..:)

  32. andres stornini
    August 31, 2015

    Al lado de la caída de agua, en la catarata,¿ el material que se ve es pórfido ?

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