By 1844, Easterly had begun practicing photography taking outdoor photographs
of architectural landmarks and scenic sites in Vermont. Among his
earliest daguerreotypes, made a decade before outdoor photography was
popular or profitable, those of the Winooski and Connecticut rivers are the only known examples to be self-consciously influenced by the romantic landscape paintings of the Hudson River School
artists. He was also the first and only daguerreotypist to identify his
work using engraved signatures and descriptive captions.
|Ruins of the Great St. Louis Fire, 17-18 May 1849. Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly, 1849. Source: Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections|
|No-Che-Ninga-An, Chief of the Iowas, 1845|
|Lynch’s Slave Market, 104 Locust Street, 1852, by Thomas Martin Easterly. According to the National Parks Service, “there were constant reminders of the horrors of slavery in|
antebellum St. Louis. One of the worst involved the open sales of slaves
at various places along the city’s busiest streets, which was an
accepted community practice. Regular slave auctions and sales were held
in several places, most notably at the slave market run by Bernard M.
Lynch on Locust Street between Fourth and Fifth. This market was moved
in 1859 to Broadway and Clark Streets. Lynch’s “slave pens” were former
private residences with bars placed on all the windows to secure them
like prisons. Slaves were herded off steamboats and up the street to the
slave houses, then sold to persons, especially after 1840, from outside
St. Louis, mostly from the western counties in Missouri or further down
the river. Families were broken up, with children taken from mothers,
fathers sold down the river, husbands and wives separated. And all of
this was done in full view of crowds wishing to buy and passersby going
about their daily business.” Source: Missouri History Museum.
In the fall of 1845, Easterly traveled to the Midwest United States and toured the Mississippi River
with Frederick F. Webb as representatives of the Daguerreotype Art
Union. The two gained some notoriety from their photography of the
criminals convicted of the murder of George Davenport
in October of that year. Iowa newspapers reported that Easterly and
Webb had achieved a “splendid likeness” of the men shortly before their
Easterly soon became popular for his portraits of prominent residents of St. Louis and visiting
celebrities which were displayed in a temporary gallery on Glasgow Row. One of these portraits was that of Chief Keokuk taken March 1847. He also took a daguerreotype of a lightning bolt, one of the first recorded “instantaneous” photographic images, while in St. Louis. This was later recorded in the Iowa Sentinel as an “Astonishing Achievement in Art”. Before returning to Vermont in August 1847, the St. Louis Reveille described his as an “unrivaled daguerreotypist”.
Easterly was brought back to Missouri by John Ostrander,
founder of the first daguerreotype gallery in St. Louis, in early 1848.
Preparing for an extended “tour of the south”, Ostringer asked Easterly
to manage his portrait gallery. Esterly would continue running the
gallery when Ostringer died a short time later. Many of his unique streetscapes
depicting mid-19th-century urban life were taken from the window’s of
Ostringer’s gallery. In June 1850, he married schoolteacher Anna Miriam
Bailey and settled in St. Louis permanently.
|Daguerreotype portrait of Enoch Long, circa 1855, Thomas Easterly. Source: Missouri Historical Society|
1860s most photographers had abandoned
the daguerreotype process for the
albumen and collodion processes.
Easterly felt that the daguerreotype was
an art form and refused to adopt new
techniques, urging the public to “save your old daguerreotypes for you will never see their like again”. His studio
suffered from declining patronage, and
he himself developed poor health,
probably due to the mercury poisoning
often associated with the daguerreotype
Despite the declining interest for pictures on silver, he was
able to maintain his gallery until it burned in a fire in 1865. He was
forced to move to a smaller location and continued working in near
obscurity until his death in St. Louis on March 12, 1882.
|Daguerreotype Gallery of Thomas Martin Easterly, St. Louis, Missouri, 1851. Author: unattributed. Source: Missouri History Museum|
After his death, his wife sold most of his personal collection to John Scholton, another noted St. Louis photographer. The Scholton family eventually donated the plates to the Missouri Historical Society
where they remained for nearly a century before being rediscovered
during the 1980s by art scholars studying pre-American Civil War
Although his reputation was limited to the Midwest during his lifetime, Easterly is considered to have been one of the foremost experts in the field
of daguerreotype photography in the United States during the mid-to-late 19th century.
The most complete appreciation of
Easterly’s life and work, with 233
illustrations is Dolores Kilgo’s book
“Likeness and Landscape: Thomas M.
Easterly and the Art of the
Daguerreotype” published by the Missouri
Historical Society Press in 1994. An
exhibit of the same name accompanied the