The Daguerreian Society

A Thumbnail History of the Daguerreotype
by Kenneth E. Nelson

The Beginning

In the beginning, of course, there was light. And through the ages, people have made images to record that which was illuminated. Until relatively recently the recording was laborious, and always involved the eye and hand of a (usually) skilled person. Mechanical and optical devices were invented along the way that helped improve the accuracy of the record. Devices such as the camera obscura and camera lucida evolved to become quite sophisticated, employing fine lenses and mirrors to cast sharp, clear images for artists to trace. Eventually, as people learned about the world in ever greater detail, the requirements for imaging accuracy began to exceed the capability and capacity of the artist's hand, and methods were sought to directly "fix" the image thrown by a lens, so that Nature could in effect "draw herself." The crux of the matter was preparing a medium to be sensitive to light, using a lens and light to form an image upon it, and then making that same medium insensitive to further exposure, so that the resulting image could be viewed in light without harm.
   So photography, or "light writing," was not born in a vacuum. Many individuals were at work on the challenge during the first quarter of the 19th century, experimenting with papers or plates prepared with light-sensitive chemicals, and certain of these men achieved some success. Though absolute proof of priority may never be established, it fell to a French artist and an English amateur scientist to almost simultaneously publicize different practical methods of photography in 1839. The subject of the pre- and early history of photography is fascinating, and deserving of more space than is available here, but the remainder of this short article will be devoted to the invention and legacy of the French artist, named Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, born near Paris in 1787.
   By 1825, Daguerre was a successful commercial artist in Paris; creator, proprietor, and promoter of a giant illusionistic theater called the Diorama. Patrons were treated to huge 22 x 14m (71 x 45 ft) paintings of historical, allegorical, and picturesque scenes, cleverly lit in various ways to simulate the passage of day into night, changes of weather, and even a sense of motion. Daguerre's illusions depended heavily on the accurate representation of detail and perspective on a grand scale, and so, like many others of his day, he employed the camera obscura as a tool to help him faithfully trace in two dimensions what his eyes saw in three. Thus, it seems quite natural that he might have wished to remove the limitations of the artist's hand altogether from the process of sketching for his grand illusions. He began experimenting.

Daguerre and Niépce

Through his optician, Daguerre became aware of similar efforts being made by a fellow countryman, Joseph-Nicephore Niépce. Niépce's aim was to use light to create plates that could be inked and printed to produce accurate reproductions of original works or scenes. (One of Niépce's experiments, made in 1826, is a view from his studio window that took eight hours to expose. It is recognized as the world's earliest extant "photograph" and is preserved in the Gernsheim Collection of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin.) The two men corresponded, and though cautious of one anothers' intentions, eventually formed a partnership to develop and commercialize their shared dream.
   Niépce died in 1833 before practical success was achieved. But Daguerre had learned important things through the partnership, and by 1837 had worked out a solution to the puzzle. In brief, his method consisted of treating silver-plated copper sheets with iodine to make them sensitive to light, then exposing them in a camera and "developing" the images with warm mercury vapor. On the basis of its novelty, and difference from the pewter-and-resin based systems developed by Niépce, Daguerre claimed the invention as his own by naming it "The Daguerreotype."

The Daguerreotype

Though commercial enterprise would become (and forever remain) the dominant force in the development of photography, Daguerre's early efforts to privately sell his process by subscription failed. But in the French scientific community he found an enthusiastic champion named François Arago, a respected member of the Académie des Sciences, who presented the daguerreotype as "...indispensable that the Government should compensate M. Daguerre direct, and that France should then nobly give to the whole world this discovery which could contribute so much to the progress of art and science." This then was enough to fire the public imagination, and shortly the whole world awaited details of Daguerre's magical invention. The French government realized Daguerre's dream of reward by granting pensions to both Daguerre and the late Niépce's son for their efforts, and Daguerre and Arago publicized the steps of the process on August 19, 1839, (almost) without restriction, as a gift to the world from France.
   In a scene that we can easily relate to the release of Windows 95®, everything remotely related to the making of daguerreotypes was whisked off the shelves of Parisian opticians and chemists within days of the announcement. France was caught in the grip of "Daguerreotypomania," a fact that was at once skewered on the rapier wit of Parisian satirists and cartoonists. In only months, Daguerre's instruction manual could be found around the world in a dozen translations. Following the announcement, and despite his continued effort, Daguerre had very little else to do with the future of the miracle process that bore his name. He died at Bry-sur-Marne in 1851.

The Daguerreian Era

The world immediately began a love affair with the daguerreotype, especially in America, where fascination with the silvered plate lasted nearly twenty years. Within a year of the initial disclosure, improvements were made in the lenses, apparatus, and chemistry of the process to the point that portraiture was possible in relatively short exposures. By 1843 a burgeoning daguerreotype portrait industry had evolved. While still expensive, a miniature portrait "likeness" was no longer lucre for the painter, nor a privilege of the very wealthy. For the equivalent of $2 to $5 in almost any town, a person's "phiz" could be immortalized on a slip of silver, framed with a rich gilt mat, and pressed into a fitted case covered in fine embossed leather. Wholesale material suppliers, franchised chains of studios, glorious big-city galleries ("Temples of Art"), and lone itinerants drifting through small towns, all did a gold-rush business in peoples' desire to be "taken." (The daguerreotype even made a real gold-rush more real than words alone could tell, as millions around the world saw newspaper illustrations copied faithfully from daguerreotypes made right in the California gold fields.)
   Though often far less than flattering, daguerreotype likenesses were regarded as mirrors of truth. Their brilliance, clarity, and seeming ability to reveal the soul of the sitter became the stuff of poetry, and at least one well-known novel, Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables. A serial magazine having nothing to do with photography was called The Daguerreotype (as in "The Truth.") The wonders of the world were captured in hair-splitting realism for publication, along with the documentation of well-earned pride in family farms, homes, villages, churches, and the artifacts of livelihood. Professional journals appeared for daguerreotypists, along with fierce competitions for prestige, medals, and the occasional hefty silver chalice. By the mid 1850's, millions of the shiny little pictures had been made of almost every aspect of life (and death), and photography had begun to become commonplace.
   For all of its beauty, the daguerreotype did have disadvantages. Reflections from the mirror-like plate made viewing difficult. Because the image was on highly polished metal, it was relatively heavy, and its extremely delicate surface required a protective coverglass and a bulky frame or case. It was difficult to make in larger sizes; the most common size was about 2 3/4 x 3 1/4 inches (7 x 8.2 cm). And, critically, it was a unique original--there was no negative from which multiple prints could be made. Nonetheless, the fantastic success of the daguerreotype lay both in its extraordinary beauty, and that it was not hobbled by patent or license. The formula was free. Anyone could do it, and make money from it. (Except in England, where Daguerre had cannily secured a patent, with at least the tacit knowledge of the French government, perhaps as a bit of nationalistic nose-thumbing.)

The Face of Competition

As mentioned before, another workable photographic system was announced in 1839, by English amateur scientist William Fox Talbot. Unlike Daguerre's crisp images on metal plates, Fox Talbot's process produced paper negatives from which rather soft, painterly paper prints were made in a separate step. When word of Daguerre's process reached Fox Talbot, he rushed to complete his own system and began patenting it in 1841. But commercial licenses for Fox Talbot's patented process were hard to sell in the face of the essentially free and established daguerreotype. So, though Fox Talbot's prints-from-negatives approach attracted a talented following, and would eventually become the dominant concept in photography, it was no match for the daguerreotype in the eyes of portrait-making entrepreneurs and the portrait-buying public. It took two decades of evolution and new invention to finally bring the full acceptance of negative/positive photography about.
   By the late 1850's, inexpensive, imitative ambrotypes (1854), cheap, quick tintypes (1856), and sharp paper prints in multitude from glass negatives (1851), had all cut into the dominance of the daguerreotype. In the first half of the 1860's, soldiers in the American Civil War favored light, durable paper prints or tintypes of their loved ones over fragile, bulky daguerreotypes, and the war itself was documented on glass negatives that were printed in editions of thousands. Soon, people began to miss the quality of the "old daguerreotype," but in the face of dozens of paper portraits (such as the hugely popular carte de visite,) costing the price of only one daguerreotype, the daguerreotype as a commercial process rapidly disappeared. There is strong evidence, however, that this most beautiful of photographic processes has continuously been practiced since its heyday, first by a persistent few of the original daguerreians who refused to give it up, then by others who learned anew from the period books and journals. This tradition continues through the present day.

Looking Frankly

All of the people who stare back at us from the old daguerreotypes, so direct and so dignified, are now dust. Dead and gone for generations. But somehow the brilliance, clarity, and depth of their surviving daguerreotypes, unmatched by even the most modern of photographs, almost brings them back to life. This, perhaps, is L. J. M. Daguerre's most successful illusion of all.

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