This was a positive image on a metal support.
The Daguerreotype was the first successful photographic process, the discovery being announced on 7 January 1839. The process consisted of
Daguerre's choice of chemicals was such that the action of light left a milky white image or mercury amalgam.
His first plates were 8 1/2" by 6 1/2"; it is interestting to note that this still remains the standard "whole-plate" today.
The quality of the photographs was stunning. However, the process had its weaknesses:
Many of the daguerreotypes that remain are noticeable for their detail, and this caused quite a sensation at the time. Indeed, the Spectator (2 February 1839) called daguerreotypes the "self operating process of Fine Art." The reaction in America was also one of amazement. The Journal "The Knickerbocker" for December that year quoted:
Carl Dauthendey, a photographer who became the first professional daguerreotype photographer in St. Petersburg, makes an interesting comment on the way Daguerreotypes were viewed:
Sometimes the details might reveal something that the photographer had not intended. Fox Talbot, Daguerre's rival, observed:
This capacity to record minute detail was put to good use by Jean Baptiste Louis Gros, an amateur who made the first images of the Parthenon whilst on a mission in Greece. On his return to Paris he discovered that on close inspection details which he had not observed could be examined, including the minutest sculptural elements.
In the museum at the Royal Photographic Society one of Daguerre's cameras is displayed. It was used by Talbot for his own process. However, there is an interesting omission: Daguerre's cameras always had a label on the side, bearing his signature, but Fox Talbot appears to have removed this!
One problem with early daguerreotypes was the length of exposure required - 10 to 15 minutes in bright sunlight. In fact, a daguerreotype in the International Museum in Rochester, depicting a chapel, states that the picture was taken between 4:40pm and 5:30pm on 19 April 1840. Such lengths were hardly suitable for portraiture. Fox Talbot noted in a letter dated 21 May 1852:
To make photography possible, rests were used to keep the head still, and sitters had often to cope with brilliant sunlight. One photographer even used to run flour on the sitter's face, in order to reduce exposure time!
There was clearly a need to find some more effective ways of reducing the exposure time:
Taken together, these improvements enabled photographers to use exposures of between ten and thirty seconds, thus making portraiture more of a practical proposition. By March 1841 Beard had opened a studio at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, while Claudet opened one three months later, behind St. Martin's church, Trafalgar Square. In 1853 Daguerre's patent expired, and many daguerreotypists began to open for business. At that time, of course, all photographs were monochrome (it was not until after the time of Maxwell that colour photography became a possibility), so many artists turned to hand-colouring the photographs, which were almost invariably presented in ornate cases.
Colouring was a skilled and delicate affair. Typical of the kits was the Newman kit, dated 1850, with thirty-six colours. The colours would be applied very carefully with a fine brush, and then fixed simply by breathing on the plate itself.
The daguerreotype, aptly called a "mirror with a memory", was an amazing development, and one cannot but marvel at the intricacy of the detail. However, it was a blind alley as far as photography was concerned.
Typical prices of a Daguerreotype would be:
2.5" x 2" (1840) - 21/- (£1.05)
Do have a look at the site dedicated exclusively to Daguerre. The address is http://www.daguerre.org
Interestingly enough, there are enthusiasts who still produce dagerreotypes. See here.
© Robert Leggat, 2006