By the mid-19th century, photography was replacing early printmaking techniques as the primary form of portraiture in the Hawaiian Kingdom and elsewhere in the world. Photographers were among the many itinerant artists arriving in Hawai‘i, and as illustrations gave way to photographs, classical forms of art became associated with the legitimacy of historic power, while photography was the medium of the future. This is in part because of the technical innovations and chemical processes associated with early photographic image-making, which situated it firmly in the age of industrial and scientific expansion. In the French journal Photographie rationnelle, A. Belloc states that photography “demands good judgment, a great spirit of observation, and a considerable amount of scientific knowledge from those who wholeheartedly want to practice it.” To be associated with photography was to be associated with science, something King Kalākaua picked up on and leveraged during his reign.
The daguerreotype, a photographic process invented by Louis Daguerre in Paris in 1929, was the first form of photography practiced in Hawai‘i. In 1845, an engineer named Theophilus Metcalf offered Hawai‘i residents the opportunity to have their portraits taken, but struggled with the technical process and equipment associated with daguerreotypy, making his experiments in photography a short-lived endeavor. In 1847, the process was reintroduced by a visitor from France named Senor Le Bleu, who sold photographic portraits taken of Honolulu residents during his brief stay.
Daguerreotypes were circulating across the islands by 1853 through the work of Hugo Stangenwald and Stephen Goodfellow, two photographers from California passing through Hawai‘i on their way to Australia. When the smallpox epidemic broke out in April of that year, Goodfellow went on to Australia while Stangenwald stayed and practiced photography until 1858. The 1860s witnessed an increase in available photographic printing processes, a broader distribution of images, and a larger number of photographers offering their services in Hawai‘i.
Photography scholar, Lynn Davis, suggests the field of photography grew to be very diverse in keeping with the demographic shifts in the Hawaiian Kingdom. Several photographers came from the United States during the Gold Rush when Americans were immigrating westward, some of them stayed in the islands and became Hawaiian nationals, while others continued on to other parts of the Pacific and Asia. Many photographers came as immigrants from Portugal, Japan, and China, and found photography a lucrative industry for those who could secure steady patronage.
King Kalākaua was an avid patron of royal family photographs, which he then shared with diplomats and nobility from other countries. He strategically visited photography studios when he traveled. While on his 1881 world tour, Kalākaua was hailed by the European press as ‘the best educated, most elegantly mannered ruler in the world.’ Utilizing photography and engaging the press created hype around his visits and celebrity around Hawai‘i. It also enabled his image to be reproduced and widely circulated. As a monarch intent on maintaining Hawai‘i’s independence, this advanced his initiative to present Hawai‘i as a capable and cutting-edge Kingdom on the world stage.
View some of these photographs in the recently opened exhibition Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era.