Daguerre, then and now

Louis_Daguerre_2

Portrait of Louis Daguerre, 1844. Daguerreotype. Photographer: Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot (1801-1881). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) was working in France in parallel with Fox Talbot. His process was further developed in collaboration from 1829 with Joseph Niéphore Niépce who died in 1833, leaving Daguerre to progress the work alone. Daguerre announced his discoveries in 1839, and whilst recognising Niépce’s significant part in them, named the process the daguerreotype, leaving Niépce’s term, heliography, behind. This is a history littered with lost terminology. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the term photography was most likely coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839.

1855-daguerrotype-familyphoto-joke-Punch

An 1854 two-panel cartoon on the vagaries of early photography, published in the Punch’s Almanack for 1855. Caption to top panel: “Interesting group posed for a Daguerrotype by a friend of the family”. Caption to bottom panel: “Interesting and valuable result” (the family photograph has actually turned out horribly). Source: wikimedia commons

Whatever the term, the announcements on both sides of the Channel caught the imagination of the world, but it was Daguerre’s process from the start that proved more popular. In 1840, Edgar Allen Poe announced the importance of Daguerre’s camera: ‘The instrument itself,’ he wrote, ‘must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science’ (in Trachtenberg, 1980: 37).

The daguerreotype was, however, not without its detractors, as a satitical cartoon from Punch in 1855 demonstrates. At first, exposure for a daguerreptype took hours, and although this was reduced within a year to only minutes, it was still problematic and ‘still placed limitations on the choice of subject’ (Clarke, 1997: 15). A commentator writes in The Spectator in 1841: ‘To render the Daguerreotype applicable to the purpose of portraiture, it was necessary to accelerate the action of light on the plate; for rapid as was the formation of the image, even five minutes was too long for any sitter to remain perfectly still. This has been accomplished by various modifications of the chemical preparation of the plate…’ (The Spectator, London, 4 September 1841: online resource, The Daguerreian Society). There are plenty of articles with advice on how to how daguerreotype children, and a flurry of inventions for holding heads and arms still. In a journal entry dated 24 October 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:

Robert_Louis_Stevenson_daguerreotype_portrait_as_a_child

Daguerreotype portrait of Scottish novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson as a child. Unknown photographer. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Source: Wikimedia Commons

‘Were you ever Daguerrotyped, O immortal man? … and in your zeal not to blur the image, did you keep every finger in its place with such energy that your hands became clenched as for fight or despair, & in your resolution to keep your face still, did you feel every muscle becoming every moment more rigid …’ (Emerson, 1841, online resource: The Daguerreian Society). It was also difficult to view since its silvery metal surface reflected light, but despite its drawbacks, Daguerre’s method spread fast and far afield, enjoying considerable success in America, as is evidenced by the hyperbole in the article ‘Heliography in New York’, La Lumiere, 1852, online resource: The Daguerreian Society); and in the comments of Lady Elizabeth Eastlake in 1857 in her essay Photography published in the Quarterly Review: ‘As early as 1842 one individual, of the name Beard, assumed the calling of daguerreotype artist. In 1843 he set up establishments in four different quarters of London’ (Eastlake in Trachtenberg, 1981: 40).

But daguerreotypes were, in the end, a fleeting innovation in the Grand Narrative of the History of Photography, as Damisch and Berger state: ‘the first inventors worked to fix images and simultaneously to develop techniques for their mass distribution, which is why the process perfected by Daguerre was doomed from the very outset, since it could provide nothing but a unique image’ (Trachtenberg, 1981: 290). Whilst the world now reveres the digital image, and film work recedes dangerously close to extinction in the popular conception of what photography is, daguerreotypography is now only used by enthusiasts such as the members of the The Daguerreian Societyand artists such as Chuck Close working with Jerry Spagnoli, and Spring Hurlbut in collaboration with daguerreotypist Mike Robinson.

The early inventors of photography sought mass production, and from the outset, possibly influenced by this desire for mass production, there was debate as to its cultural status: was it a science? Was it a craft? Was it, Heavens forfend, an art? This was a debate which in 1839 was already waiting for Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in which he cites Paul Valéry: ‘Just as water, gas and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to minimal efforts, so shall we be supplied with visual or auditory images…’  The flood of these images did not began in 1839 – lithography was already illustrating our lives in newspapers and journals – but Daguerre and Fox Talbot et al certainly opened the floodgates to bring us to the state where today, according to Qmee there are 20 million photo views on Flickr, 104 thousand photos shared on Snapchat, and 3,600 Instagrams every 60 seconds…

M. Daguerre, qu’avez vous faits?

Bibliography
Benjamin, W., ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Walter, B., H. Zohn (trans.) (1968) Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York: Schocken Books
Clarke, G., (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History, Oxford Paperbacks.
Trachtenberg, A. (ed.) (1980) Classic Essays on Photography, New Haven: Leete’s Island Books
Watson. R., & H. Rappaport. (2013) Capturing the Light, London: Macmillan

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