Lasting Impacts of the Daguerreotype

In the past few articles of this series, we’ve seen how the daguerreotype came about but we haven’t really taken a moment to look at just how far-reaching the effects of its “birth” were. For starters, the daguerreotype put an end to the portrait making business as it was known to the world. Skilled painters, who previously were the only means of creating a likeness of one’s self, were suddenly squeezed by the faster and cheaper process. Not only was the daguerreotype literally faster and easier to create than a painting, the operator didn’t need to have any particular talent other than being able to follow directions and do some mathematical computations to mix chemicals. They didn’t need to spend years cultivating their art and style and studying methods. And they surely didn’t need the underlying “spark” or “raw talent” that is often associated with painters or sculptors. By the 1860’s, much of the portrait painting industry was gone and those that did still have their paintings commissioned often did not sit for their painting sessions, but instead sent their painter a daguerreotype to work from. (Can you imagine how hard that must have been to swallow if you had been a portrait painter struggling for work?)

Since the daguerreotype was a new form of visual communication, it was a bit like the wild west. There were no “rules” so to speak and it wasn’t viewed yet as an art form. The mechanics of creating the image were taught from one operator to the next and ended up creating a similar aesthetic across the board.  Slowly, studios began to differentiate themselves from low-end to high-end by operators who began seeking to show more of their clients’ personalities in their photos. To reveal more than just a likeness on the outside, but also convey a bit of their likeness from the inside through the image as well. As daguerreotypes became more and more common, there was also a shift in studios to commemorating ordinary tradespeople with their wares. Daguerreotypes became an equalizer among classes. No longer were likenesses only created for the super rich. An average person could walk into a portrait studio, sit for an image, and have the same product as the millionaire down the street.

The popularity gave rise to picture factories. With the masses clamoring for more imagery, some studios opened with the business model that they would cater to the masses at a lower price. The product wouldn’t be unique, but they’d have their image. I’m sure we all can name a brand or two that uses this business model to this day.

Additionally, the prevalence of daguerreotypes sparked portrait galleries. For the first time, average people could go to galleries and see true images of leaders, officials, and celebrities. These galleries could even travel from place to place. It brought the rich and famous into the average person’s life.

Platt D. Babbitt’s Tourists Viewing Niagara Falls from Prospect point circa 1855. Daguerreotype with applied color.

I find the early influences on politics also fascinating. In the mid-1800’s a man by the name of James Presley, who was a free black man, opened a gallery called “Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West” in Cincinnati, Ohio. (He also later went on to open multiple other galleries.) He was a vocal part of

James P. Ball’s first of three daguerreotypes in his series documenting William Biggerstaff.

the anti-slavery movement and used his gallery to display the scenes of slavery that he had captured. Daguerreotypes of all the atrocities of those times were on display and indisputable and indefensible. He eventually cultivated a sensational reputation and was approached by  Frederick Douglass and Ulysses S. Grant to do portraits. Ball furthered the power of the daguerreotype also by using it to create a photojournalistic story for one of the first known times in history. He created a portrait series of an execution of a man named William Biggerstaff. Biggerstaff had been tried and convicted of murder. Ball did a series of portraits in various stages, before, during, after.

Daguerreotypes also influenced the environment. Travel was hardly as easy as it is today. Often times, people only heard stories and verbal descriptions of places like the Grand Canyon, or the Rocky Mountains, or the ocean let alone foreign countries. It brought awareness of these areas and encouraged traveling and expedition and vacation.

Daguerreotypes also influenced the law. Heading a US Government land survey was James Renwick. He commissioned a daguerreotype operator by the name of Edward Anthony to create a daguerreotype of a disputed boundary in the northeast between the US and Canada. In 1842 a joint commission set to settle the land dispute used these daguerreotypes in their final decision. This was the first time a precedent was set to use photographs as evidence in legal matters.

John Whipple’s daguerreotype of the moon, captured through a telescope in 1852.

Within matters of science, the daguerreotype also continued to make a reputation for itself as an accurate visual representation of whatever was being studied. This opened the door for students to study from daguerreotypes instead of living (or preserved) subjects. Not only were camera optics improving, so were telescope optics. The addition of the daguerreotype process through the telescope allowed for John Adams Whipple to be the first person to create a daguerreotype of the moon in 1852. The detail rendered through the combination revolutionized astronomy.

In the end, William M. Ivins Junior stated it best. He said (it is) “through photography that art and science have had their most striking effect upon the thought of the average man today.”

I couldn’t agree more!

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