A Brief History of Photography: Part 2 – Daguerre

As noted in Part 1 of this series, Joseph Niepce is generally acknowledged as the first successful photographer, through his achievement in 1827 of capturing, via his heliography process, an image that remained light-fast (did not continue to darken when further exposed to light). This process was limited by the extremely long exposure time required by the materials involved.  Shortly after this achievement, he was introduced to French artist and businessman Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787-1851) through their optician, Charles Louis Chevalier, who manufactured the lenses for their cameras obscura. Together they strove to improve the process Niepce had fathered.

Daguerre at this time was a Romantic painter and printmaker best known for for his Diorama, a popular attraction in Paris employing theatrical painting and lighting effects in a 360-degree display that created an illusion of movement, such as changing seasons, a train crash, or a volcano eruption.  He employed a camera obscura for this endeavor, but desired a quicker way than meticulously crafted paintings to create highly realistic scenes.

Louis Daguerre, 1844 photographer Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Biot
Louis Daguerre, 1844                                               by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Biot

In the course of their partnership, Neipce and Daguerre switched from pewter to Sheffield plates, which were produced as a standard hardware item by heating and rolling silver foil in contact with a copper backing.  They then innovated by fuming iodine onto the bitumen and silvered plates to yield positive silver iodine images of greater detail.

Frederick Douglas daguerreotype portrait
Frederick Douglas daguerreotype, 1855          artist unknown                                                        The William Rubel Collection

Daguerre soon discovered that the silver iodine itself was light sensitive and could be used without the bitumen to create images.  He also discovered (allegedly though the accident of breaking a mercury thermometer stored with some exposed plates) that a latent image on the silver plates could be revealed by exposure to mercury fumes.  However, much like other experimenters in the field were finding, he could not control the continued darkening of the image with its subsequent exposure to light; the silver iodine layer remained light sensitive.  Daguerre struggled with this problem until 1837, when he tried saturating the developed image in hot salt water.  This procedure cleared the unexposed silver iodine from the image, making it now light-fast, or “fixing” the image.  Two years later, following the advice of Sir John Herschel, he adopted hyposulfate of soda (now thiosulfate of soda), or “hypo,” as the fixing solution.

In 1833, before Daguerre had actually made these discoveries and improvements to the process, Neipce suffered a stroke and died.  Daguerre believed that his subsequent changes were so significantly different from Niepce’s earlier work that his improvements constituted a completely new process, whereupon he named his new images daguerreotypes.

 Daguerre now had a viable process for capturing images, and sought a way to profit from his discovery.  He initially attempted to sell the process for a lump sum in 1838, and then via a subscription scheme.  Neither of these efforts bore fruit, so he adopted a more political approach.  Enlisting the aid of Francois Arago, an influential member of the French Academy of Sciences, Daguerre was able to present the daguerreotype to the French government 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 effort evidently proved convincing, as Daguerre and Niepce’s son in 1839 were granted pensions by the government for this achievement.  Soon following this announcement, Daguerre published a manual of his process, selling 9000 within the first three months.  This early form of “open source” technology led to an explosion of interest in the daguerreotype process throughout Europe and the United States.

Emily Dickenson daguerreotype portrait
Emily Dickenson daguerreotype, 1848         artist unknown                                           Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

The first daguerreotypes used “slow” Chevalier lenses, and the silver iodine layer had a light sensitivity equal to a modern rating of 0.001-0.005 ISO.  This entailed long exposure times (5-60 minutes) that put portrait photography out of reach; thus the first daguerreotypes were of still lifes, street scenes, architecture, etc..  Two changes promptly evolved to address this problem:  larger and “faster” lenses were adopted, and the chemical process was improved.

By 1841, Chevalier in France, Ross in London, and Petzval in Austria began to develop better achromatic (non-distorting) lenses, featuring larger effective apertures, for express use in daguerreotype cameras.  The use of bromine and chlorine fumes to form light-sensitive silver bromide and/or silver chloride was also adopted, yielding plates with greater light sensitivity.  The use of smaller cameras and plates also allowed the available light to be more effectively concentrated, resulting in shorter required exposure times. This progress in improved exposure times is illustrated here:

1839 – Half-plate to whole plate:  15-30 minutes

1841 – Ninth-plate to sixth-plate:  20-90 seconds

1842 – Ninth-plate to sixth-plate:  10-60 seconds

(whole plate: 6-1/2” x 8-1/2”, ninth-plate:  2” x 2-1/2”)

The final image made in a daguerreotype was a very fragile direct positive image, easily smudged by an errant finger.  It had a surface finish like a mirror, requiring the plate to be angled so as to permit viewing of the image.  The highlights are created by greater amounts of silver amalgam particles on the plate surface, scattering the light into your eyes.  The shadows of the image are created by few or no silver amalgam particle deposits, allowing the polished silver finish to reflect all light away from your eye, thus appearing dark. The viewer’s own reflection can be seen in the image at times, and depending on the angle of viewing and the ambient lighting, the image could switch from a positive to a negative.

The effect of viewing angle on daguerreotype
The effect of viewing angle on daguerreotype                 from TheDagLab.com

The fragility of the plate required protective glass-covered cases or frames to be provided for finished daguerreotypes.  Another characteristic of the daguerreotype is that the image is reversed; writing will be seen backwards, wedding rings will appear to be on the right hand versus the left, etc..  Also, as an opaque finished product, the image was a unique original that could not be projected or enlarged, or reproduced directly.   The only way to get a copy of a daguerreotype was to take another daguerreotype of the first finished plate (this would also again reverse the image, “correcting” the original reversal effect.)

The daguerreotype was capable of extremely fine detail and image resolution, well beyond that of most current digital cameras.  Magnified viewing of well-focused vintage daguerreotypes can resolve minute features with no loss of detail.  In the process of restoring the Charles Fontayne and William Porter 1848 daguerreotypes of the Cincinnati waterfront, the George Eastman House conservators estimated the resolution of the 6.5 x 8.5-inch plates as the equivalent of 140,000 megapixels each; the resulting panorama could be blown up to 170 by 20 feet without losing clarity.

Three Girls daguerreotype portrait
Three Young Girls daguerreotype, 1845                  by Gustav Oehme

The daguerreotype process took the world by storm, but particularly so in the United States; the process was free, without patent restrictions or licensing fees.  Daguerre’s instruction manuals provided followers with the needed technical foundation to pursue their own endeavors.  Within a year of the process’s release to the public, improvements in cameras, lenses, and chemistry made portraiture possible, which in turn spawned an entire daguerreotype portrait industry.  While still not inexpensive, for $2 to $5 almost anyone could get a portrait made in most any city.  By 1853, it was estimated that 3 million daguerreotypes per year were being made in the U.S.. For almost twenty years, the silvered image of the daguerreotype held the public’s attention, but progress waits for no man, including the daguerreotyper.  Daguerre passed away in 1851, and the daguerreotype itself was not much longer for this world, as compelling new technologies emerged to overshadow it.

Today it is believed that less that 100 contemporary artists worldwide still employ the daguerreotype process.  The obvious health risks from toxic mercury fumes have been supplanted by use of the Becquerel method of development.  In this method, the traditional daguerreotype process is initially followed.  However, after the plate has been exposed in the camera, it is then developed by further exposure to bright light through a red or amber filter.  The image slowly forms under this process much like a Polaroid.  The impressive image quality of the daguerreotype, combined with the superior optics of modern cameras, can yield amazing results, as seen in the recent work of portrait artist Chuck Close.

Brad Pitt daguerreotype portrait by Chuck Close, 2009
Brad Pitt daguerreotype, 2009                  by Chuck Close

(Next Month:  William Fox Talbot & Competing Technologies)

This is the second installment of an ongoing series on the history and development of the art of photography.  It is inspired by the History of Photography class taught by Professor Jeff Curto in the College of DuPage Photography Program.  While I do not intend to plagiarize his work, I freely admit to following his general course outline and sharing many of the perspectives he has developed.  I would encourage anyone with a greater interest in this subject to follow his course online via video podcasts, at http://photohistory.jeffcurto.com.


A World History of Photography, 4th Ed, 2007 by Naomi Rosenblum

History of Photography Podcasts, class lectures with Jeff Curto from College of DuPage (http://photohistory.jeffcurto.com)

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daguerreotype)

The Daguerreian Society (http://www.daguerre.org)

About.com Inventors (http://inventors.about.com/od/dstartinventions/a/Daguerreotype_3.htm)

Metropolitan Museum of Art (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dagu/hd_dagu.htm)

Sussex Photo History (http://www.photohistory-sussex.co.uk/dagprocess.htm)

The Dag Lab (http://www.thedaglab.com)

Wired Magazine, “1848 Daguerreotypes Bring Middle America’s Past to Life”  (http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/07/ff_daguerrotype_panorama/)

Creating a Daguerreotype Plate Using the Becquerel Method, From Start to Finish,” Michael Zhang  (http://petapixel.com/2012/09/06/creating-a-daguerreotype-plate-using-the-becquerel-method-from-start-to-finish/)

“Chuck Close: Not So Typical Daguerreotypes”  (http://reelfoto.blogspot.com/2011/06/chuck-close-not-so-typical.html)

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