Christie's is pleased to include the following essay by Frank H. Goodyear, a Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies at George Washington University, whose book, with working title, View/Finding America: Nineteenth-Century Landscape Photography and the Birth of American Tourism, is soon to be published. The book considers photography's influence on the growth of the commercial tourism industry in nineteenth-century America and includes a chapter dedicated to Babbitt's work at Niagara Falls.
These glass transparencies by Platt Delascus Babbitt are rare examples of a photographic format that Babbitt worked in for a short time near the end of his life. The four glass plates represent Niagara Falls in the winter from four different perspectives. As a photographer, Babbitt is most well-known for his earlier work as a Daguerreotypist. For at least eight years he enjoyed a thriving commerical business in tourist photography at Niagara Falls. Beginning in the summer of 1853, Babbitt began producing Daguerreotype portraits of tourists from Prospect Point on the American side of the Falls. Babbitt built a pavilion in this wooded park that summer and stationed himself and his camera under it. Tourists then commissioned him to take their portraits before the backdrop of the American Falls. Varying in size from a whole plate to a one-sixteenth plate, these daguerreotypes were a popular souvenir item for visitors. Many examples of this work exist today. In subsequent years Babbitt sold ambrotypes and glass stereographs of tourist parties at the Falls and the Falls from different perspectives and at different seasons. Although other photographers at Niagara Falls would earn a more celebrated reputation, Babbitt is significant for being the first American to establish a photographic business at Niagara Falls with the specific purpose of catering to the burgeoning tourist trade.
The first of two children in a farming family from the town of Lanesboro in western Massachusetts, Babbitt struck out for western New York sometime in his late twenties. He seems to have left home in order to seek greater employment opportunities, the town of Lanesboro having recently endured an economic reversal. Although Lewis Babbitt, a distant cousin from Worchester, Massachusetts, was involved in the photographic business at this time, Platt Babbitt did not create photographic images before his arrival at Niagara Falls. It is probable that he settled here because of the robust economy that tourism had created and that he learned the trade from Saul Davis, a Canadian photographer who operated a nearby portrait gallery.
The published remarks of visitors to the Falls indicate that Babbitt ran a successful commercial business. His reputation within both professional and public circles reached well beyond western New York. Babbitt frequently corresponded with photographers in other states and on several occasions contributed to Humphrey's Journal, the leading professional journal of its day. Desirous of circulating his work before a larger audience, he also sent his stereographs of the Falls to fellow practitioners as far away as Boston and Cincinnati. These individuals exhibited Babbitt's photographs to great public acclaim.
Babbitt's prominence at Niagara Falls, however, did not last. Sometime after 1861 his photographic work came to a halt. Competition from other photographers appears to be the reason that he discontinued this career. At least ten different photographers had established themselves at Niagara Falls by 1860; furthermore, numerous practitioners with studios elsewhere descended on this site to obtain images for commercial sale at home. The crowning blow to his trade came as a result of a heated disagreement with the family who owned the land on which he built his pavilion. Thereafter, he was forced to find another site from which to market his photographic images. Little is known about Babbitt's life during the years after the failure of his photographic business. He and his wife remained in their home on First Street in the town of Niagara Falls and did not resettle elsewhere. The Babbitt's never had any children.
Babbitt created these glass transparencies sometime during the winter of 1872-73. A marked departure in style and format from his earlier photographs, these images suggest a new sense of artistry. As opposed to the conventional formula he employed in his commercial work, Babbitt seems to be experimenting with different ways of seeing the Falls in these views. Nothing is known about his artistic influences or training; however, it is interesting to note that one of the four plates closely resembles a painting that the famous American landscape artist Frederic Church executed in 1868. Although there are no documents to indicate a connection between Babbitt and Church, it is clear that Babbitt was adopting a fresh vision with this work. As transparencies were commonly associated at this time with a burgeoning movement in art photography, he most likely created them with specific exhibition intentions in mind. The ornate walnut stand further indictates that they were intended for this purpose.
It is likely that Babbitt created these plates in anticipation of exhibiting them at the annual conference of the National Photographic Association. This professional organization had selected the nearby town of Buffalo to host their national meeting in 1873. Records show that he did indeed exhibit transparencies at this venue. Three years later a collection of Babbitt's transparencies were also displayed in a window alcove within the Photographic Hall at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. On this occasion Babbitt's work was part of the largest and most important photographic exhibition of its time.
Babbitt did not continue to work for long in this format. As such, only a small number of these views are extant today. Other examples of his collodion transparencies are in the collections of George Eastman House, Rochester, New York and the Niagara Falls Public Library. During the latter half of the 1870s, Babbitt's health began to fail. In 1879 he took his own life by drowning himself in a small creek.