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Early photography was a bulky, finicky endeavour – and an exciting one, at the cutting edge of technology. A major collection of daguerreotypes, stereoviews, early cameras and what used to be called photographic ephemera has just been bought by the Archive of Modern Conflict’s Toronto outpost. The 20,000 items of the Matthew R. Isenburg Collection cost $15-million (U.S.) – the highest sum ever paid for a single hoard of 19th-century photo materials. The London-based AMC mostly displays its holdings through handsome publications, though it’s said to be planning a display facility in Toronto. Here’s a peek at some of its latest acquisitions

This detail of a delicately hand-tinted daguerreotype of the U.S. side of Niagara Falls was made by Platt D. Babbitt, who included tourists in his images without their knowledge. He would offer his wares for sale before the visitors left.

Isenburg Collection/Archive of Modern Conflict

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A detail of a portrait from the Boston studio of Southworth & Hawes shows a young mid-century woman in a somewhat risqué pose, the shoulder of her dress pulled down, hinting at narratives we may never know.

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Poseidon with his trident could not look more confident than the man in the foreground. This detail of a shot of gold miners has an unusually spontaneous look – the result of shortening exposure times or a very persuasive photographer.

Isenburg Collection/Archive of Modern Conflict

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In this detail of a daguerreotype, a miner displaying the tools of his trade makes his shovel as prominent as his face , glazed over by the effort of remaining still for up to a minute. The sign of his success – some gold in his pan – is almost a minor detail.

Isenburg Collection/Archive of Modern Conflict

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Photography brought portraiture to the masses, and this light-tight ‘daguerreian saloon’ took it on the road, arriving in Niagara-on-the-Lake in the early 1850s. The arrival of such wagons caused a stir in every town, almost like a circus rolling in. (Detail of photo shown.)

Isenburg Collection/Archive of Modern Conflict

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Early photography unleashed a passionate urge to document the natural and human landscape, as with this detail of a daguerreotype. A string of mid-century gold rushes stirred up keen public curiosity, satisfied in part by intrepid photographers.

Archive of Modern Conflict

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Matthew Isenburg and some of the 20,000 items of his collection.

Isenburg Collection/Archive of Modern Conflict

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