The annual Johnson County Community College Night at the Nelson-Adkins Museum of Art brings something like 700 students to the gallery. Faculty give presentations on art and art history associated with particular pieces or collections. The lectures last fifteen to twenty minutes with questions and answers until the next round of presentations begin on the half hour.
This year, I talked about the Nelson’s daguerreotype collection. Louis Daguerre invented the first permanent photography process in 1839. Light and its capture amaze me. But what’s more important is that with a simple chemistry set, polished silver-coated copper plate, and a camera obscura, a person could make photographs. Within a few years of the introduction of the process, thousands of daguerreotypists set up studios in the United States, mostly in cities. But a good many took to the road, taking pictures in small towns and villages, and at people’s homes and farms.
The daguerreotype was a miracle. For the first time, people could capture scenes from real life without the interpretation of a painter or sketch artist. No longer was the realm of reality in the hands of artists. Daguerre created a process that was democratically available. Where once only those with money and time could afford their portraits pained, the daguerreotype allowed ordinary people to have their portraits made for the cost of a day’s wages.
The daguerreotype produces a picture that seems to float in space rather than live on a two-dimensional plane. Depending on the angle one looks at a daguerreotype, the picture seems to change from positive to negative and back. A good picture made with the process possesses a clarity and sharpness that even today’s digital photography can’t match.
I was motivated though my crowd was small. They all paid attention and posed great questions. Each of them stepped up to the display and looked over the tiny pictures. Some lingered for further discussion. I struck up a conversation with a man who wanted to know more about the process, which includes mercury, iodine, and bromine. Dangerous chemicals, he said. Didn’t they ever think about the possible health effects? I said I knew of no incident where a photographer went mad as a hatter (whose processes used mercury and produced intense neurological affects and brain damage). That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In fact, I said, most daguerreotypists worked in spaces that would have allowed a lot of air, which probably reduced some of the danger of the chemical process.
After the presentation and when the crowd melted away, I went to look at some pictures I like. I stuck around in the dim Block galleries, looking at photographs, and then went into the main gallery to take in some Monets. I wandered around the gallery after that, seeing several faculty members who had given presentations. I thought to take in a presentation myself and wound up back in the photo gallery to listen to a woman talk about some kinetic works that captured motion.
I went back to wandering the gallery. The night was coming to a close. An after-party or reception was set up in the Ford Learning Center. I fought with myself. Should I go to the after party or just go home? Nick expected that I would be home by about 8:30. But I could cheat that time a little and stay after.
But I decided against it. Most of those people know each other and have been working together for years. I was just an adjunct, the joke of academe. I’m sure I could have struck up some talk. But I had been to the reception in previous years. I get a drink and eat some cheese. Uneasy chats begin and end. In reality, I like my colleagues. They respect me. But I found myself a little anxious at the prospect of standing around with nothing to say.
I walked slowly out through the ultra-modern glass Block galleries. Would it be better to go back inside and give the reception a stab? There may be some people there I would like to catch up with. I was a little hungry and know that the cheese-and-fruit spread at the reception was likely very good. But I saw myself as an interloper among the full-timers who only get to see each other once a year. I could see myself being tolerated.
As I filed through the revolving door, the opportunity was lost. I figured to return to the gallery would be turning my back on myself. I didn’t have much to add to the event. I wouldn’t fit into the crowd, or at least I felt I wouldn’t. Those people wouldn’t miss me, anyway. It didn’t matter if I went or not.
Instead, I strolled in front of the gallery for a while, taking in the evening, enjoying the quiet and the falling of night. The gallery has been a part of my life for five decades. While the curators add a new exhibit or installation, or even an entire run of buildings, the main gallery building hasn’t changed. It always looks the same. There’s some solace in that.
As I walked, an inner calm overcame my nervous insides. I’m 53 now. I have friends, even if I don’t have a social life. I didn’t need to go to that reception. The really wouldn’t be much of a chance for conversation, which is what I really craved. A reception is for talking nice, catching up a little, going over the night at the Nelson. It’s not a time for conversation, a real sit down with someone. There just isn’t the time.
I arrived home at 8:18. I opened the door and sat in the car for a minute and listened to the engine tick. The smell of my lilacs drifted in. I was at home. Nick looked forward to seeing me. I was just all right.
Still, the niggling feeling I should have gone to the reception bothered me. I thought about the daguerreotype, a picture floating in space, an image like a life, positive one second, negative the next. There’s always next year, I told myself. There’s always next year.