On this date in 1839 the French Academy of Sciences (Académie des sciences) announced the invention of the Daguerrotype, the first reliable form of photography and the first to come into widespread use during the early 1840s. By the early 1860s, later processes which were less expensive and produced more easily viewed images had almost entirely replaced it. A small-scale revival of daguerreotype among photographers interested in historical processes was increasingly apparent during the 1980’s and 1990’s and has persisted.
The distinguishing visual characteristics of a daguerreotype are that the image is on a bright (ignoring any areas of tarnish) mirror-like surface of metallic silver and it will appear either positive or negative depending on the lighting conditions and whether a light or dark background is being reflected in the metal. From certain angles the image cannot be seen at all.
Several types of antique images, particularly ambrotypes and tintypes but sometimes even old prints on paper, are commonly misidentified as daguerreotypes, especially if they are in the small, ornamented cases in which daguerreotypes were usually housed. The name “daguerreotype” refers correctly to only one very distinctive image type and medium, produced by a specific photographic process that was in wide use only from the early 1840s to the late 1850s.
Since the late Renaissance, artists and inventors had searched for a mechanical method of capturing visual scenes. Previously, using the camera obscura, artists would manually trace what they saw, or use the optical image in the camera as a basis for solving the problems of perspective and parallax, and deciding color values.
In the early seventeenth century, the Italian physician and chemist Angelo Sala wrote that powdered silver nitrate was blackened by the sun, but did not find any practical application of the phenomenon. previous discoveries of photosensitive methods and substances—including silver nitrate by Albertus Magnus in the 13th century, a silver and chalk mixture by Johann Heinrich Schulze in 1724,and Joseph Niépce’s bitumen-based heliography in 1822—contributed to development of the daguerreotype.
The first reliably documented attempt to capture the image formed in a camera obscura was made by Thomas Wedgwood as early as the 1790s, but according to an 1802 account of his work by Sir Humphry Davy:
The images formed by means of a camera obscura have been found too faint to produce, in any moderate time, an effect upon the nitrate of silver. To copy these images was the first object of Mr. Wedgwood in his researches on the subject, and for this purpose he first used the nitrate of silver, which was mentioned to him by a friend, as a substance very sensible to the influence of light; but all his numerous experiments as to their primary end proved unsuccessful.
In 1829 French artist and chemist Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (photo above), contributing a cutting edge camera design, partnered with Niépce, a leader in photochemistry, to further develop their technologies. The two men came into contact through their optician, Chevalier, who supplied lenses for their camerae obscurae.
Niépce’s aim originally had been to find a method to reproduce prints and drawings for lithography. He had started out experimenting with light sensitive materials and had made a contact print from a drawing and then went on to successfully make the first photomechanical record of an image in a camera obscura—the world’s first photograph. Niépce’s method was to coat a pewter plate with bitumen of Judea (asphalt) and the action of the light differentially hardened the bitumen. The plate was washed with a mixture of oil of lavender and turpentine leaving a relief image. Niépce called his process heliography and the exposure for the first successful photograph was eight hours.
After Niépce’s 1833 death, Daguerre continued to research the chemistry and mechanics of recording images by coating copper plates with iodized silver. Early experiments required hours of exposure in the camera to produce visible results. There is a story of a fortunate accident, related by Louis Figuier of a silver spoon lying on an iodized silver plate which left its design on the plate by light perfectly. Noticing this, Daguerre wrote to Niépce on 21 May 1831 suggesting the use of iodized silver plates as a means of obtaining light images in the camera. Letters from Niépce to Daguerre dated 24 June and 8 November 1831, show that Niépce was unsuccessful in obtaining satisfactory results following Daguerre’s suggestion, although he had produced a negative on an iodized silver plate in the camera. Niépce’s letters to Daguerre dated 29 January and 3 March 1832, according to Eder, show that the use of iodized silver plates was due to Daguerre and not Niépce.
Jean-Baptiste Dumas, who was president of the National Society for the Encouragement of Science and a chemist, put his laboratory at Daguerre’s disposal, which was fortunate, according to Eder, who says Daguerre was not versed in chemistry; and it was Dumas who suggested Daguerre use sodim hyposulfite, discovered by Herschel in 1819, as a fixer to dissolve the unexposed silver salts. Much of Daguerre’s early work was destroyed in a fire: “Until 1839 Daguerre resided in Paris, living at 15 Rue de Marais, the premises of the Diorama from which he derived his income. On 8 March 1839 the house was burned to the ground, and with it the bulk of his early experimental works including the experimental picture which Daguerre made with Arago in order to instruct him in the method and importance of his invention.” Malcom Daniel points out that “fewer than twenty-five securely attributed photographs by Daguerre survive—a mere handful of still lifes, Parisian views, and portraits from the dawn of photography.”
François Arago announced the daguerreotype process at a joint meeting of the French Academy of Sciences and the Académie des beaux arts on January 9, 1839. Later that year William Fox Talbot announced his silver chloride “sensitive paper” process. Together, these announcements mark 1839 as the year photography was born, although Daguerre’s view of the street outside his window was produced the year previously, 1838. Other, earlier practitioners of photography include Hippolyte Bayard and Hércules Florence who produced photographs in 1833—earlier than Daguerre, although later than Niépce’s bitumen heliography. Also, Hércules Florence called his invention photographie whereas in the early days of photography it was called daguerreotypy and the daguerreotype. No one mentioned the word “photography”.
Daguerre did not patent and profit from his invention in the usual way. Instead, it was arranged that the French government would acquire the rights in exchange for a lifetime pension. The government would then present the daguerreotype process “free to the world” as a gift, which it did on August 19, 1839. However, on August 14, 1839, a patent agent acting on Daguerre’s behalf filed for a patent in England, Wales and Scotland. For some reason the patent in Scotland was not enforced, but it was in the other two, making them the only countries in the world in which the purchase of a license was legally required to make and sell daguerreotypes.
By the 1860’s the process had been superseded by other processes. But there was a “retro” revival in the 1980’s that continues
Entrecôte Marchand de vin is a classic Parisian dish suitable to celebrate Daguerre. You’ll need a sirloin steak, ½ an onion, and 3 fluid ounces of red wine per person. Heat a little olive oil over medium high heat and sauté the onion in a heavy pan until it is browned at the edges. Remove the onion and turn the heat to high. Allow the pan to get smoking hot. Sear the steak on both sides and cook until reaching the desired doneness – about 2 minutes for rare is my preference. Add back the onion and the wine and let it reduce until it is syrupy. Serve with chunky fried potatoes and a green salad.