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Cities of Stone
Page 10


  William H. Prescott, who had been in correspondence with Stephens since the latter's return from Yucatan, wrote him in August, "I cannot well express to you the great satisfaction and delight I have received from your volumes." He praised Catherwood's illustrations and in deprecating terms referred to Waldeck's "charlatanism" and the "improbability" of the work of earlier archaeological draughtsmen.

  With the publication of Central America Stephens was far from finished on the subject of American antiquities. The tenth edition, published in September 1841, contained a preface in which he wrote, "It is his [Stephens'] intention to make a thorough exploration of the ruins of Yucatan which he was prevented from doing before by the illness of Mr. Catherwood. Mr. Catherwood will again accompany him." He continues, in a statement curiously at odds with with other contemporary evidence, "They will be provided with the Daguerreotype, which instrument had not yet reached the country at the time of their embarcation for Central America...."

  The daguerreotype was the earliest practical form of photography, in which the image was produced on a silvered copper plate. As Stephens implied, it had only recently been introduced to the American continent. In early September, 1839 one D. W. Seager, an Englishman, had arrived in New York bearing a copy of the recently-published Historique et description des procedes du Daguerreotype....  Seager ordered a camera to be built according to these instructions and produced the first daguerreotype in America on September 16th, 1839. On October 5th he delivered the first American lecture on the new art at the Stuyvesant Institute. One of the sponsors of this lecture, said in an announcement to be "familiar with the process and its extraordinary results," was unable to attend, for he had sailed to Central America two days before. He was none other than John Lloyd Stephens.

  Throwing still further doubt on Stephens' protestations of ignorance concerning the daguerreotype is a reminiscence by Henry Hunt Snelling, a pioneer in American photography:

  "...Mr. Catherwood, who had been to Central America with Mr. Stephens, the traveler and author, to obtain views of the ancient ruins of that country, returned to New York unsuccessful with his camera. He said the heat was so great, and the atmosphere so yellow, that he could not make the chemicals work, and every attempt at a picture was a failure. We told him we thought we could remedy the evil. As he was going to return to Yucatan with his artist's materials immediately, we induced him to bring his camera to us and have it fitted with blue glass. On his return from this second trip, he informed us that it was effectual, and he brought home many daguerreotypes."

  From Snelling's account it is clear that Stephens and Catherwood carried photographic apparatus with them on their first trip to Central America and Yucatan. Why, then did Stephens go out of his way to deny it? In Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, published in 1843, he says of his second expedition's daguerreotype equipment, "but one specimen had ever before appeared in Yucatan." He was surely referring to Friederichsthal, whose daguerreotypes of Maya ruins had already been exhibited in New York. Certainly Stephens had little enough liking for the Austrian, complaining petulantly to Prescott, "I gave Friederichsthal a carte du pays for Yucatan and letters and the result is a publication in the newspapers impeaching the correctness of Mr. Catherwood's drawings. I did not see him when he passed through this city....", It is possible, perhaps, that Stephens was so stung by his failure and Friederichsthal's photographic coup that he did not wish to suffer the public embarassment that his bungled attempts at photography might provoke. Unfortunately, further documentary evidence on this matter is lacking, and the question remains unresolved.



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