DAGUERRE, Louis Jacques Mande

b. 18 November 1787; d. 10 July 1851

Daguerre (pronounced Dagair) was perhaps the most famous of several people who invented photography.

He began work as an apprentice architect, and at the age of sixteen was an assistant stage designer in a Paris theatre, his elaborate stage designs winning him considerable acclaim. He had an astonishing ingenuity in the handling of light and lighting effects, and he supplied the scenic and lighting effects for a number of operas in theatres in Paris. He developed an impressive illusions theatre, which he termed Diorama; it was a picture show with changing light effects and huge paintings measuring 22 by 14 metres, of famous places. This became the rage in the early twenties.

He regularly used a camera obscura as an aid to painting in perspective, and this had led him to seek to freeze the image. In 1826 he learned of the work of Nicephore Niépce, and on 4 January 1829 signed up a partnership with him.

The partnership was a short one, Niépce dying in 1833, but Daguerre continued to experiment. He made an important discovery by accident. In 1835, so the story goes, he put an exposed plate in his chemical cupboard, and some days later found, to his surprise, that the latent image had developed. Daguerre eventually concluded that this was due to the presence of mercury vapour from a broken thermometer. This important discovery that a latent image could be developed made it possible to reduce the exposure time from some eight hours to thirty minutes.

Though he now knew how to produce an image, it was not until 1837 that he was able to fix them. This new process he called a Daguerreotype.

Daguerre advertised his process and sought sponsorship, but few seemed interested. He then turned to Francois Arago, a politician, who immediately saw the implications of this process, took his case up, and the French government commissioned a report on the process, to be chaired by Paul Delaroche. On 7 January 1839 an announcement was made of the discovery, but details were not divulged until 19 August when the process was announced publicly, the French government having bought the rights to the process from him, and given it free to the world. However, this process had also been patented in England and Wales on 14 August - only five days previously. As Lady Eastlake pointed out:

"...by some chicanery a patent for the daguerreotype was actually taken out in England, which for a time rendered this the only country which did not profit by the liberality of the French government. The early history of photography is not so generous in character as that of its maturity."

From the day the announcement was made of this new discovery, the process came to be used widely. The claim was made that the daguerreotype "requires no knowledge of drawing...." and that "anyone may succeed... and perform as well as the author of the invention."

The Literary Gazette for 7 January 1839 read:

"Paris, 6th January 1839.

We have much pleasure in announcing an important discovery made by M. Daguerre, the celebrated painter of the Diorama. This discovery seems like a prodigy. It disconcerts all the theories of science in light and optics and, if borne out, promises to make a revolution in the arts of design.

M. Daguerre has discovered a method to fix the images which are represented at the back of a camera obscura; so that these images are not the temporary reflection of the object, but their fixed and durable impress, which may be removed from the presence of those objects like a picture or an engraving."

An article in La Gazette de France, of the same date, also showed one of the limitations of the process:

"Nature in motion cannot reproduce itself, or at least can do so only with great difficulty, by the technique in question. In one of the boulevard views.... it happened that all which moved or walked did not appear in the drawing...."

The early daguerreotypes had several drawbacks.

  • the length of the exposure necessary all but ruled out portraiture.

  • the image was laterally reversed (as one sees oneself in a mirror). Many of the portraits reveal this from the way the coat was buttoned; if one required a picture the right way round, the camera would be pointed at a mirror reflecting the sitter's image. Initially this will not have bothered people, who were used only to seeing their mirror image in any case. (However, see Wolcott).

  • it was very fragile.

  • perhaps most limiting of all, it was a "once only" system; what was needed was a means whereby copies of a photograph might easily be made.

Taken in 1839, this picture of a boulevard gives the impression of empty streets, because with long exposures moving objects would not register.


However, there was an exception when a man stopped to have his shoes shined, (see bottom left of the larger picture) and though he and the person shining the shoes remain anonymous, they may have the distinction of being the first people ever to have been photographed.

In 1851 Daguerre died. In a sense this symbolically ended an era, for that very same year a new technique was invented, which was another milestone in photography - the wet collodion process by Frederick Scott Archer.

There is considerable material to be found in the Daguerrian Society's web-site. Do have a look.

A postscript

© Robert Leggat, 2000