British photographic history

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Obituary: Matt Isenburg, photographic collector and historian

Matt Isenburg, leading photographic collector and historian and driving force behind the Daguerreian Society, has passed away at the age of 89 on 14 November 2016.

Matt was a WW2 US Navy veteran and fascinated by history, in which he obtained a Bachelor's degree at Northwestern Universary. He started as a camera collector, with a major interest in Leicas but switched to collecting early photographica, focussing particular interest on the first 30 years of photographic history. He equally collected images, cameras and related photographic hardware and photographic literature, to tell the complete story of photography across his era of specialty using two collecting maxims, namely to collect the best of the best and to not be afraid to pay tomorrow's prices today. As a result, few private collectors have ever amassed anything like the diversity of important and rare material that Matt did.

Matt enjoyed writing about his extensive collection, producing many articles, a book with Charles Klamkin "Photographica : a Guide to the Value of Historic Cameras and Images" and he gave lectures on a wide array of photographic subjects over the years. In 1978 he founded the Daguerreian Society with John Wood, serving as President for many years. With Matt's encouragement, the Daguerriean Society held its 25th anniversary symposium in Paris in 2013 but his health prevented him from attending.

Matt possessed an unsurpassed collection of daguerrotypes, including a large family collection from the Southworth family (of the Southworth and Hawes studio in Boston), images of the Capitol Building and White House, a large number of full plate daguerreotypes of the Californian gold rush, 23 daguerreian cameras including the first one in America imported by Samuel Morse, numerous choice ambrotypes, tintypes, stereoviews and cartes de visite mostly from America but also other countries; photographic albums, frames and viewing apparatus; unexposed daguerreotype plates and developing outfits; advertising material; letters, documents and manuscripts relating to early photographers and extensive runs of daguerreian and wet plate era photographic periodicals in English, French and German and well as many of the key books on photography from that period.

Hundreds visited Matt's home in Hadlyme, Connecticut over the years to view his amazing collection and were regaled with not only the history of the items, but also the many stories of the chase in obtaining them and often into the very early hours of the morning! Matt possessed an intense passion for early photography and a driving desire to share it and was always generous in providing information and offering advice and encouragement.

In 2012, Matt sold his world class collection for $15, 000000 to media magnate David Thomson to be housed in the Archive of Modern Conflict facility in Toronto 2012. With his health failing, Matt realised his legacy had to continue to be utilised and enjoyed and he was comfortable with his decision, seeing his collection remain intact even though it was leaving the country. The collection has since been gifted to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 2015 for inclusion in a larger collection called Origins of Photography.

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Comment by david g burder on January 9, 2017 at 16:18

I shall never forget Matt's 1992 presentation "A Closer Look", which showed the amazing quality to be seen through ever increasing magnifications of a sharp Daguerreotype scene. It converted me into making Dags.

He loved to educate and we all loved being educated by him. A great loss.

Comment by Dick Bolt on December 19, 2016 at 13:58

Matt & his second wife Sharon were good friends of mine back in 70s & 80s for a few years. He was one of the main stays of PHSNE (US New England area) getting started. He had deep pockets that made super items come to him much easier & it also allowed him to do much research on the history surrounding the images.He helped me acquire several great images & cameras that I still have. His depth of knowledge of Photo History will be a long time till surpassed. 

Comment by Carne, Bobbie on December 19, 2016 at 11:55

What a great guy? We owe so much to the obsessions of collectors like Matt. And, so glad to learn his sold collection was not broken up. Makes me weep seeing simple old postcards of Edwardian times in 'my UK', countless of which sold singly on the likes of Ebay, have been taken out of personalised photo albums that Edwardians as families or individuals all seemed to produce as a pastime.    

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