As is often the case with history, it seems that time moves slowly until it explodes in a flurry of invention and then seemingly all at once everything changes. To me, this feels especially true in photography. In my previous articles, the sheer expanse of time from the first inklings of photographic concepts to the actualization of recording images by chemical reactions of light is astounding. It takes ages. Yet, once the daguerreotype appears all at once, things begin to change.
First things first. What exactly is a daguerreotype? It’s not exactly a photo, at least not in the sense we think of a photograph today. It’s this strange and fascinating image that is both two and seemingly 3 dimensional at once. The image is made on a polished copper plate that is highly reflective. Due to the reflective nature of it, you can only see the image come into view perfectly from a specific angle. Daguerreotypes were always meant to be handheld for that very reason. You need to move them about to find the image. Otherwise, when you view it from the “wrong” angle, the image appears as a negative. This same highly polished surface also allows for fantastically rich rendering of even the tiniest details—assuming your subject was still long enough for the exposure. They’re also interesting in that they are “mirror images” of the subject, because they are viewed from the same side of the plate that originally faced the camera. There were prisms available as “filters” to reverse the image so this wouldn’t happen, but it was an extra step not often utilized.
The process of making the daguerreotype was formulaic and Daguerre himself had written and distributed an instruction manual. That manual arrived in the US in September of 1839. Within the first two weeks, a chemistry professor at NYU named John Draper had procured the instructions and attempted (and succeeded) in making a daguerreotype portrait of his sister. He sent a letter to Herschel, in England, proclaiming he believed himself to be the first person in America who succeeded in obtaining portraits from the life.”
For the first time, the mechanical process of making a daguerreotype brought portrait making to the masses. Previously, hiring an artist to render your image by hand cost a small fortune and was not something that just anyone could afford.
At the introduction of daguerreotyping, exposures were often several minutes. A “short” exposure would be considered a minute. More typically exposures were in the 5-8 minute range. This is often why you see examples of pristinely crisp daguerreotype of buildings, but somewhat muddled images of people (often with their eyes closed). It’s simply too hard for a human to stay entirely still for that long. In efforts to minimize the movement, daguerreotypists (often referred to as “operators”) would devise ways to get their subjects to remain still. Head clamps, limited poses, doses of opioids, and even threats were all used to keep clients still. At this point in time, achieving images that reflected personality were not even a thought in operator’s minds. They were only focused on creating the technical likeness of a person’s image.
It’s interesting to note that around this time (the 1830’s) America was experiencing it’s first modern economic depression. In addition to that, the introduction of the daguerreotype was threatening the stability of the portrait making business. Previously a service people had to pay vast sums for, portrait makers now had to figure out a way to compete with the faster and cheaper daguerreotype. Ultimately, many portrait makers turned to daguerreotypes. Many were self-taught or learned under apprenticeships at studios. Eventually, those portrait makers brought advancement to daguerreotypes by applying their fine art skills and hand painting color onto some daguerreotypes for an elevated image.
Studios were set up in a way that actually used skylights and mirrors to reflect natural light down on to a subject. Given the slow exposure process of early daguerreotyping, portraits were often more popular on sunny days where exposures could be as short as a minute or two, versus cloudy days where portraits could take 8-10 minutes or longer. These slow exposures definitely encouraged pioneers in the industry to continue searching or improvements to the process. In an era where consumerism was beginning to rise and the popularity of preserving ones self image was, the faster and easier the process could be, the more potential money they could make.
In 1840, the patent rights to the daguerreotype process were purchased by a man in England by the name of Richard Beard. He went on to hire John Frederick Goddard to find a way to increase the sensitivity of the copper plate, and thus decrease exposure time. He discovered that adding bromide to the process created exposure times 5-10 times faster than before. Simultaneously, Hippolyte Louis Fizeau created a technique called gilding that minimized oxidation of the plate and also further increased the contrast of the image. Shortly after these discoveries, Beard opened the first portrait studio in London in 1841.
Also going on in America at this time, more improvements (dubbed “The American Process”) involved adding more silver to the plates and using power buffers to create an even higher polish to the plate. Materials were standardized and silversmiths began commercially producing the plates.
These advancements allowed the daguerreotype to take over the world, so to speak, not only in visual prevalence, but in social, economic, political, and scientific ways. Check back next week as I explore these various impacts sparked by the spectacular daguerreotype!
Click to read more columns about The History of Photography.