The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic process (1839-1860) in the history of photography. Named after the inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, each daguerreotype is a unique image on a silvered copper plate.
In contrast to photographic paper, a daguerreotype is not flexible and is rather heavy.The daguerreotype is accurate, detailed and sharp. It has a mirror-like surface and is very fragile. Since the metal plate is extremely vulnerable, most daguerreotypes are presented in a special housing. Different types of housings existed: an open model, a folding case, jewelry…
Numerous portrait studio’s opened their doors from 1840 onward. Daguerreotypes were very expensive, so only the wealthy could afford to have their portrait taken. Even though the portrait was the most popular subject, the daguerreotype was used to record many other images such as topographic and documentary subjects, antiquities, still lives, natural phenomena and remarkable events. European daguerreotypes are scarce. They are scattered in institutional and private collections all over the world. Many aspects of the daguerreotype still need to be discovered. They can help us to understand the impact of photography on Europe’s social and cultural history.
Daguerre regularly used a camera obscura as an aid to painting in perspective, which led him to think about ways to keep the image still. In 1826 he discovered the work of Joseph Niépce, who was working on a technique for stabilizing images captured with the camera obscura.
In 1832, Daguerre and Niépce used a photosensitive agent based on lavender oil. The process was successful: they were able to obtain stable images in under eight hours. The process was called Physautotype.
After Niépce's death, Daguerre continued his experiments with the goal of developing a more convenient and effective method of photography. A fortunate accident resulted in his discovery that mercury vapor from a broken thermometer could speed the development of a latent image from eight hours to just 30 minutes.
Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process to the public on August 19, 1839, at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. Later that year, Daguerre and Niépce's son sold the rights for the daguerreotype to the French government and published a booklet describing the process.
The daguerreotype is a direct-positive process, creating a highly detailed image on a sheet of copper plated with a thin coat of silver without the use of a negative. The process required great care. The silver-plated copper plate had to first be cleaned and polished until the surface looked like a mirror. Next, the plate was sensitized in a closed box over iodine until it took on a yellow-rose appearance. The plate, held in a lightproof holder, was then transferred to the camera. After exposure to light, the plate was developed over hot mercury until an image appeared. To fix the image, the plate was immersed in a solution of sodium thiosulfate or salt and then toned with gold chloride.
Exposure times for the earliest daguerreotypes ranged from 3-15 minutes, making the process nearly impractical for portraiture. Modifications to the sensitization process, coupled with the improvement of photographic lenses, soon reduced the exposure time to less than a minute.
Although daguerreotypes are unique images, they could be copied by re-daguerreotyping the original. Copies were also produced by lithography or engraving. Portraits based upon daguerreotypes appeared in popular periodicals and in books. James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald, posed for his daguerreotype at Brady's studio. An engraving based on this daguerreotype later appeared in the Democratic Review.
American photographers quickly capitalized on this new invention, which was capable of capturing a "truthful likeness." Daguerreotypists in major cities invited celebrities and political figures to their studios in the hopes of obtaining a likeness for display in their windows and reception areas. They encouraged the public to visit their galleries, which were like museums, in the hope that they would desire to be photographed as well. By 1850, there were more than 70 daguerreotype studios in New York City alone.
Robert Cornelius' 1839 self-portrait is the earliest extant American photographic portrait. Working outdoors to take advantage of the light, Cornelius (1809-1893) stood before his camera in the yard behind his family's lamp and chandelier store in Philadelphia, hair askew and arms folded across his chest, and looked off into the distance as if trying to imagine what his portrait would look like.
Cornelius and his silent partner Dr. Paul Beck Goddard opened a daguerreotype studio in Philadelphia around May 1840 and made improvements to the daguerreotype process that enabled them to make portraits in a matter of seconds, rather than the three- to 15-minute window. Cornelius operated his studio for two and a half years before returning to work for his family's thriving gas light fixture business.
Toward the end of his life, Daguerre returned to the Paris suburb of Bry-sur-Marne and resumed painting dioramas for churches. He died in the city at age 63 on July 10, 1851.
Daguerre is often described as the father of modern photography, a major contribution to contemporary culture. Considered a democratic medium, photography provided the middle class with an opportunity to attain affordable portraits. The popularity of the daguerreotype declined in the late 1850s when the ambrotype, a faster and less expensive photographic process, became available. A few contemporary photographers have revived the process.