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From The Century Magazine (New York) Vol. 68, No. 1 (May 1904) pp. 83-91.
THE LOST ART
OF THE DAGUERREOTYPE
BY ABRAHAM BOGARDUS
THE writer remembers reading in the newspapers of 1839 a short notice that a Frenchman by the name of Daguerre had discovered a process by which he could catch and hold the figures of his camera obscura. Some time elapsed before much was known about the discovery, as the ocean reindeer and the telegraph had not then become the means of communication between the Old and the New World.
The announcement of the discovery created a wide interest. If it was true that "nature could picture itself," then an entirely new and perfect means had been found for portraying immovable objects Daguerre's earliest success was in securing the picture of a tree standing in the sun the plate requiring an exposure of half an hour or more to produce an impression.
The earliest practical information as to the process came to America through Professor S. F. B. Morse. The professor wrote to a friend of mine as follows:
In 1838 I visited Europe with my telegraphic invention, and early in the spring of 1839, in Paris, I formed the acquaintance of M. Daguerre, whose discovery of fixing the image of the camera obscura was creating a great sensation in the scientific world. A proposition at this time was before the French Chamber of Deputies to grant to Daguerre and Niepce, his fellow-worker, a pension, on condition that their process was given to the public. Daguerre had freely shown his results to the officials, but, by the advice of Arago, he abstained from any publicity of his process until his pension should be secured. At this time my telegraph was exciting a similar sensation. I had made arrangements to leave Paris in March, 1839, and one morning, in conversation with our worthy consul, Robert Walsh, Esq., I lamented leaving Paris without seeing these photographic results. He at once entered into my feelings and said: "I think you may see them if you drop a note inviting Daguerre to see your telegraph."
The plan was successful. M. Daguerre invited me to see his laboratory, and, the day after, he came to witness the operation of my telegraph; and it is a noticeable incident that during the two hours in which he was with me his diorama and laboratory, with his results, were consumed by fire. In my interview with him I requested, so soon as his pension bill was passed and the publication was made, to send me a copy of his manner of working, and accordingly in the summer of 1839 I received from him probably the first copy that came to America. From this copy, in which were drawings of the necessary apparatus, I constructed the first daguerreotype apparatus made in the United States.
My first effort was on a small plate of silvered copper procured at a hardware-store, and, defective as the plate was, I obtained a good representation of the Church of the Messiah, then on Broadway, from a back window of the New York City University. This I believe to have been the first daguerreotype made in America.
In another paragraph Professor Morse continues:
Perceiving in its earliest stages that photography was an invaluable and incalculable aid to the arts of design, I practised it for many months. With my friend and colleague, Professor John W. Draper, we had constructed a building for the purpose on the top of the University. Here, I believe, was made, by Dr. Draper, the first successful attempt in taking portraits with the eyes open. I had succeeded in taking portraits with the eyes shut, for it was considered at that date that the clear sunlight upon the face was necessary for a result. In reply to a question I put to M. Daguerre, "Cannot you apply this to portraiture?" he gave it as his opinion that it would be impracticable, because, in obtaining his results on still objects, the time necessary was from fifteen to thirty minutes, and he thought it impossible for any one to maintain an immovable position for that length of time.
As soon as Daguerre's process became well enough known in America for practice, scientific men and, in fact, "all sorts and conditions of men" attempted to produce the wonderful pictures. Many home-made and very primitive kinds of apparatus were employed in the experiments, including the cigar-box with a spectacle lens. If the operator succeeded in producing an impression that could be seen, it was carried about and shown as a great success.
There were several claimants for making the first portrait by the process. A Mr. Walcott made the claim, and Mr. Joseph Dixon, by letters and other evidence, claimed that the first picture was his, for which, it was said, Mrs. Dixon sat with powdered face in full sunshine fifteen minutes. Professor Morse's statement is given above.
In March, 1840, Messrs. Walcott and Johnson opened a gallery in New York, and announcing their readiness to execute portraits from life, solicited patronage. This was the first daguerreotype gallery in the world. Other places were soon opened. The daguerreotype, although considered desirable as a curiosity, was not popular, on account of the length of time required for a sitting, which varied according to the time of day and the strength of the light. It was seldom attempted on a cloudy day. The sitter must have full command of his expression and remain perfectly still for from one to three minutes to be successful in getting a likeness distinct enough to be recognized.
The daguerreotype was made on a pure metallic silver surface. After being perfectly cleaned; and made sensitive with a rouge buff, it was coated in a darkened room with the vapor of iodine, then placed in the camera, and exposed before the sitter through the lens. It was still kept from the light, and placed over the fumes of hot mercury, where the image developed.
Every effort was made by chemists and others to shorten the time of sitting. Soon it was found that the vapor of bromine added to the iodine was an accelerator. This was a great advance, as well as a relief for the sitter, as pictures could now be made in from twenty to thirty seconds. Continued improvements reduced the time to ten seconds and, with favorable light, to five.
The daguerreotype now became popular, and well-equipped galleries were crowded during the hours of sunshine. Family center-tables held scores of examples, and an evening visit brought them all to one's notice for entertainment and criticism. There was no disputing the likeness, as the well-executed picture was a perfect transfer of the face. With the shortening of the time of sitting, and with better apparatus, came great improvements in the picture. The dim, evanescent impression became a distinct, clear, and permanent picture.
Many skilful men were engaged in the art. The American operators soon "beat the world." American daguerreotypes received the highest premium at the great World's Fair held in London, 1851. The gold medal came to New York. The highest premium meant a great deal at that time, as gold medals were not so plentiful. as they have since become. The daguerreotype was popular until about 1860, when the ambrotype, a collodion picture on glass, came in. Never popular, it must have been bought for its cheapness, as it was a poor black-and-white affair. The best galleries seldom made it.
Next came the little carte-de-visite pictures, and the number made was fabulous; in large galleries on clear days sittings for sixty, eighty, and one hundred dozens were not infrequent.
Although the photograph on paper has superseded the silver plate, yet, with many others, I consider the latter the best picture yet made with the camera. The daguerreotype is perfectly durable when it has been finished with a coating of chlorid of gold, as all good operators finished it. It may and does become tarnished by the atmosphere, but a person understanding the manner of removing the tarnish can restore it to its original perfection, and it will then remain good for future generations to enjoy.
In its early days the general public looked upon the daguerreotype as a wonder. Many amusing remarks were made at the doors of galleries. A small frame containing a dozen specimens would draw a crowd. One man would undertake to describe how they were made: "You look in the machine, and the picture comesif you look long enough." Another would say: "It is not so much the looking that does it; the sun burns it in, if you keep still." Another made it all very plain by stating : "The plate is a looking-glass, and when you sit in front of it your shadow sticks on the plate."
How it came about was never known, but the impression became general that the sitter must not wink. No operator of intelligence ever told the sitter not to wink, for the effort to refrain would have given the eye an unnatural expression. We found it a duty to tell the sitter to wink as usual; that natural winking did not affect the picture. Even then it was not always understood. One old lady jumped out of the chair before a sitting was half over, raising both hands, and exclaiming : " Stop it ! stop it! I winked!"
Another remarkable fact was that sitters seldom acknowledged their own likenesses. "All good but mine," was the common decision. An aged couple, after examining their pictures, came to this conclusion : "Maria, yours is perfect, but this does not look like me." But the old lady answered : "Jeems, yours is as natural as life, but mine is failure" After a longer consultation, the old gentleman said: "we must know each other better than we know ourselves." At one time when Daniel Webster sat for a daguerreotype, the finished picture was held before him. Turning away, he said I am not to judge of my own looks; it is for you to judge, and you must decide; whether the work is worthy of your reputation." Monday was usually the best day for business. We attributed this to the Sunday-night courtship, when the young couples would agree to exchange daguerreotypes; Monday was sure to bring them. We thought matters were progressing favorably when we put the gentleman's picture in a gold locket for somebody to wear. We always had sticking-wax by us to keep wing-shaped ears from standing out from the head, and we often placed a wad of cotton in hollow cheeks to fill them out. The ladies called them "plumpers." The regulation dress for a gentleman was a black suit and white waistcoat. A favorite position was with one arm on a table holding an open book, the other with the thumb in the armhole of the waistcoat. The book was supposed to show the literary bent of the sitter. The mustache was then seldom seen. A man wearing one on the street was the subject of remark, and the boys were always ready to "guy" him. We occasionally had a gentleman of. the old school for a sitter, wearing his high coat-collar. It seemed to be made as high as possible, and allowed only the top of the head to be seen above it.
The rapid advances and wonderful achievements of "photogenic" drawing are astonishing to one who has followed and participated in most of them. Instead of the half-hour exposure required by Daguerre to take his tree, the instantaneous plate now catches the lightning-flash, the cannon-ball as it flies; and even the spokes in the wheel of a rushing locomotive. A photographic outfit is essential in astronomical observations. Negatives can now be made and printed by artificial light, without the aid of the sun. The noteworthy event of to-day, as seen by the camera, is sent to the press, and to-morrow's paper gives it to the world. Photography will continue to be a necessity in the world as long as light continues, and will be used for purposes not now supposed possible.
(End of text. Please refer to our textnote regarding this text.)
Preceeding the Bogardus article (in the same issue) is an article by Pauline King. "The Charming Daguerreotype" is also available.
We also have available two other articles by Bogardus: "The Daguerreotype" from the St. Louis and Canadian Photographer of December 1893; and "Leaves from the Diary of a Photographer" from the St. Louis and Canadian Photographer of January 1895.