Born in Philadelphia on March 25, 1818, Gabriel Harrison was the son of artist and engraver Charles P. Harrison, who moved his family to New York two years later. It was not unusual for the family to be visited by such prominent people as artist John James Audubon and former Vice President Aaron Burr. Mr. Harrison's first love was for the theater, and he became a member of the American Histrionic Society, an amateur acting troup. At various times throughout his life, Mr. Harrison was an actor, a playwright, and a theater manager.
After learning of Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre's daguerreotype process, Mr. Harrison completely immersed himself in the technique, with spectacular results. Catching the attention of John Plumbe, one of the most prominent daguerreotype entrepreneurs of the period, he was promptly hired and became one of his most popular gallery employees. His friend Edgar Allan Poe was a frequent subject, with the most famous work a daguerreotype that was produced in 1847, two years before Mr. Poe's death. Two portraits Mr. Harrison made of the Gothic author and poet were later donated to Maryland's Enoch Pratt Free Library. The successful daguerreotypist's images were awarded many prestigious medals, most notably at London's Crystal Palace in 1851 and the New York World’s Fair in 1853.
Relocating to Brooklyn in 1851, Mr. Harrison left Mr. Plumbe's employment and opened his own photo gallery. His works quickly caught the attention of the then little-known Walt Whitman. His portrait of Mr. Whitman was used for the frontispiece of the first edition of his poetry masterwork, Leaves of Grass.
Mr. Harrison’s daguerreotypes are distinctive because of their emotional intensity. His theatrical experience provided him with unique perspectives on how to present images in visually captivating ways. One of Mr. Harrison’s most moving daguerreotypes is that of his son George Washington Harrison posing as Jesus Christ in The Infant Savior Bearing the Cross.
In later years, Mr. Harrison made daguerreotypes sporadically while redirecting his professional focus to the theater. He also painted landscapes and portraits of his famous friends and also taught elocution and acting classes. He was also a founding member of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A true Renaissance man to the end, Mr. Harrison died peacefully at his daughter’s home on December 18, 1902 at the age of 84. Gabriel Harrison is remembered by photography historians as being the most gifted American daguerreotypists of the mid-nineteenth century.
Ref: The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume 5 (New York: James T. White & Company, 1894), pp. 218-219.
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