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Artist of Light: Albany’s Civil War Photographer Daniel Denison

Ambrotype image in half-case by Daniel Denison of Albany, New York circa 1852 (Credit: Bill Howard Collection)

During the American Civil War, Daniel Denison (1814-1899) was one of the most accomplished photographers operating in the City of Albany, New York. As thousands of soldiers passed through the Capital City on their way to and from the Front, Denison, along with his business partner, Rensselaer E. Churchill (1820-1892), produced high quality portrait images that are some of the finest produced during the period.

Carte-de-visite by the studio of Churchill & Denison of Albany, New York taken around 1863 (Credit: Library of Congress)

Before the Civil War divided the country, Denison was a pioneer photographer who practiced and perfected his art as a daguerrian. He evolved with photographic technology to produce glass plate ambrotypes, tintypes and later, paper albumen images. While most of his albumen images were imprinted with the name and address of his firm, Churchill & Denison, on the reverse, the images he produced before the war, are rarely found bearing his imprint.

Reverse of an original Churchill & Denison carte-de-visite produced in 1864 and bearing a federal revenue stamp cancelled by the studio (Credit: Library of Congress)

The image that is the subject of this article is an exception. The half-cased ninth plate ambrotype was recently found at a flea market just outside Albany. Dating from the early to mid-1850s, the ambrotype features an older lady dressed in her formal finery and seated before a painted backdrop. Clearly impressed into the left hand corner of the brass image mat is “Ambrotype by D. Denison.”

Daniel Denison was listed as a daguerrian in the Albany City Directory during the years 1851-1859. He initially operated out of 60 Hawk Street in the City. From 1852 to 1853, he was listed at 43 Jay Street, where he also resided. From 1853 until his partnership with Rensselaer Churchill in 1863, Denison operated out of 57 State Street. During the Civil War, and while in partnership with Churchill, he maintained a studio at 522 Broadway (later 520 Broadway). In 1870, the two partners split and Denison worked out of 13 North Pearl Street. During their business partnership the firm produced many fine images, including a series of albumen carte de visites that were taken at the 1864 Sanitary Commission Fair in Albany’s Academy Park.

Carte-de-visite by Churchill & Denison taken at the 1864 Albany Sanitary Fair featuring volunteers dressed as Shakers (Credit: Bill Howard Collection)

Photography was in its infancy when the Civil War began. Daguerreotypes, and the improved Ambrotype images, offer a one of a kind glimpse into the development of the photographic art. The images produced by the pioneer photographers preserve a record of the faces of those now all passed to dust. For most of the photographer’s subjects, the image preserved on glass of tin, is the only surviving memory of existence. Daniel Denison was just one of many of those photographers who labored to both preserve the historical record while contributing much to evolution of the art.

Original ad for R.E. Churchill's Gallery following his split with Daniel Denison in 1870 (Credit: Albany County Business Directory)

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