Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The photographer, the madman

Many people today are familiar with the early photographic format known as the Ambrotype, but few are familiar with James Ambrose Cutting, the man who lent the process its most familiar name. Cutting was a man of many interests and pursuits, among them boating (he had a small personal yacht which he christened the Ambrotype) and natural history. Inspired by the work of the prominent scientist Louis Aggasiz, he partnered with Henry D. Butler to launch the Boston Aquarial Gardens on Bromfield Street in Boston, the first aquarium in the United States; Agassiz gave lectures there. Receipts, alas, did not quite keep up with expenses, and among the investors Cutting and Butler turned to was the showman P.T. Barnum, whose own American Museum in New York featured some marine exhibitions. As finances got tighter, Barnum put on the squeeze, eventually acquiring a controlling interest in the Aquarial Gardens, which were swiftly converted from a scientific establishment to a show-hall, featuring -- among other attractions -- a "Madame Lanista" who wrestled with snakes!

Cutting, disgusted with this turn of events, found a new partner and established the "New Boston Aquarial and Zoological Gardens" at the corner of Summer and Chauncy streets. Here, too though the need to draw a crowd led Cutting and Guay to seek out fresh attractions; on of their first was the Inuit couple who had lately served as Charles Francis Hall's guides in his search for the lost Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, Ebierbing ("Joe") and Tookoolito ("Hannah"). Though popular, their appearance failed to generate the hoped-for revenue, and the new enterprise closed shortly afterwards. Distraught by the collapse of his venture, Cutting lost his mind, and was soon confined at an insane asylum near Worcester, Massachusetts; he died there in August of 1867. 

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