Silver, mercury and gold were the elements involved in the first truly successful photographic process: the daguerreotype. This technological miracle of the 19th century is increasingly being recognised as a unique and irreplaceable asset of our international cultural heritage. In 1839 the public revelation of the invention of the daguerreotype, in the midst of an increasingly industrialised civilisation, introduced a universal and continually evolving medium, through which our view of the world was definitely changed.
The pictures presented here show us the faces, places and histories of the nineteenth century and testify to the conceptual breakthrough initiated by photography in the field of visual mass communication: that of satisfying, yesterday as in today's digital age, our desire to permanently record the fleeting and unrepeatable moments of our lives.
The first genuine practical photographic process to attain universal commercial success was the daguerreotype process, invented by the painter and creator of the diorama Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre.
Daguerre’s fame should not only be due to his invention of the daguerreotype, as his greatest talent was perhaps his work as a decorator and painter for the theatre, which reached its highest expression in the Diorama inaugurated in Paris in 1822.
At the end of the eighteenth century the observation of optical phenomena and the physical-chemical action of light on certain elements had initiated a search for techniques that could reproduce reality without any further manual intervention. The heliograph of Nicéphore Niépce (Point de vue de la fenêtre, 1826-1827), known today as the “First Photograph”, was the first concrete result of a series of attempts to permanently “fix” the fleeting images recorded by the camera obscura. Nevertheless, the first genuine practical photographic process to attain universal commercial success was the daguerreotype process, invented by the painter and creator of the diorama Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre.
Announced on January the 7th 1839 to the Academy of Sciences of Paris by the astronomer and politician François Arago, this invention was destined to decisively influence the future development of science and the arts, and it would also have profound socio-economic repercussions.
This video shows an original daguerreotype camera with a lens manufactured by the Parisian optical firm Lerebours et Secretan around 1850. This equipment belongs to the collection of the Physics Cabinet of the museum of the Fondazione Scienza e tecnica in Firenze. It is accompanied by a typical daguerreotype kit including a tripod, a box for treatment with mercury vapor, boxes for fuming with iodine and bromine, a soft buckskin pad for buffing the plates and a box of unexposed silvered copper plates ready for use.
Unlike conventional photographs, daguerreotypes are metallic objects: copper plates coated with a thin layer of highly polished silver that can be viewed either as negatives or positives. The image consists of particles of a silver-mercury amalgam upon this reflective surface. Their submicron size ensures a very high optical resolution. The daguerreotype process directly creates a positive image, so these unique objects cannot be reproduced other than by photographing them.
The silver layer of daguerreotypes is particularly prone to tarnishing due to air pollutants, which can completely darken the image, and is easily damaged by wear and tear, especially if the image is not gilded. In his manual Daguerre himself advised sealing daguerreotypes under glass to preserve their delicate surface, and a protective mounting was essential to ensure their long term preservation. They were therefore kept inside cases and frames that were commercially available in a wide variety of materials, often with refined aesthetic qualities, inspired by the traditional mountings of miniature paintings, with some stylistic variations between Continental Europe, Britain and Americ
The technical imperfections of the original daguerreotype process immediately prompted a great deal of enthusiastic experimentation over the world, primarily fuelled by the urge to improve it and exploit it commercially. Contemporary newspaper accounts, transcripts of academic presentations and the first technical manuals to be published feature a wide range of modifications and solutions proposed in many different countries, which effectively reveal the level of scientific knowledge prevailing from 1839 to 1841.
In this period most of the initial drawbacks were successfully overcome, and these developments ensured the worldwide diffusion of the procedure. Exposure times were reduced by the double sensitisation of the plate and its treatment with a solution of gold chloride and sodium thiosulphate increased the stability of the image (a process developed by Armand-Hippolyte-Louis Fizeau in 1840). A prism was used to rectify the mirror-image inversion, and sophisticated tinting techniques (pioneered by the Swiss daguerreotypist Johann Baptist Isenring) were employed to amend and enhance its monochrome aspect.
The reduction of the long exposure time of daguerreotypes was one of the main priorities for early experimenters, as it made portraits particularly difficult to produce. They tackled the problem in many ways: optically and mechanically, by constructing lenses that admitted more light and designing new types of camera, or chemically and physically, by introducing accelerating substances such as bromine or chlorine, which increased the sensitivity of the plate when they were associated with iodine.
By the end of 1840 the most essential technical improvements had been made, primarily in the design of lenses. A new “portrait lens” with a large aperture and a short focal length was developed by the Hungarian optician and mathematician Max Joseph Petzval, at the suggestion of Andreas von Ettingshausen, who was in Paris when Daguerre’s procedure was published. In 1841 Petzval invented a conical metal camera, which recorded impressions on circular plates. The camera with this lens design was then manufactured by the company Voigtländer & Sohn and sold all over the world.
Early daguerreotype portraits are often distinguished by slight blurring due to the imperfect lenses and long exposure times. The backgrounds are often very simple and the subjects are seated, usually beside a small table providing them with some support, in high-backed chairs with headrests and prominent armrests to ensure the sitter’s absolute immobility.
Even before Daguerre’s equipment and chemicals were marketed on a large scale outside Paris, the enthusiasm for the new invention led many people to assemble their own cameras and conduct early experiments in portraiture.
When the daguerreotype process came to America it was pioneered by Alexander S. Wolcott and John Johnson in New York who created a tiny portrait with a small format camera on October 6th 1839. It was not equipped with a lens but with a mirror, which considerably reduced exposure times. Wolcott’s camera was patented in 1840. With great business acumen, Richard Beard purchased the exclusive British license and in 1841 he opened England's first professional daguerreotype studio on Regent Street in London. He was soon issuing licenses for portrait studios all over the country.
The daguerreotype is now particularly well-known for its use in studio portraits, but en plein air views, landscapes and still-life compositions were the most suitable subjects when the invention was first introduced, before the technical improvements had been developed that would facilitate portraiture and scenes of daily life.
In 1826-1827 Nicéphore Niépce had produced his points de vue from the window of his house in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes - with a process that he called héliographie which was preceding Daguerre’s researches a decade later – with a similarly experimental approach, due to the severe limitations imposed by the equipment and techniques.The first images he created were mostly either still-life studies or the roofs, chimneys and streets of Paris recorded at various different times of day. From 1838 to 1839 he made various views of the Boulevard du Temple, from the window of his house and presented them to several courts of Europe as proof of his discovery. His contemporaries were astonished by the fidelity and unexpectedly fine detail of these images.
In the period following the worldwide diffusion of Daguerre’s process a host of cityscapes and landscapes were created, documenting some of the most famous monuments in the world, as well as some very remote locations. Some daguerreotypists demonstrated a particular talent for the rather more demanding task of realising scenes from life: tranches de vie in the city or the countryside, or outdoor studies of animals, similar to those made by artists.
The potential of this extraordinary invention of the nineteenth century, which has been called the “wonderful century”, predominantly stirred up the enthusiasm of the scientific community, and it immediately started experimenting with the new medium in many different disciplines (medicine, astronomy, anthropology, archaeology, etc.).
In August 1839, the optical stores Alphonse Giroux et Cie and Maison Susse Frères in Paris started exclusively selling the first daguerreotype camera, equipped with achromatic lenses made by the optician Charles Chevalier and certified by Daguerre himself, in addition to various accessories and an instruction manual. The optician's shop of Noël-Marie-Paymal Lerebours on the Place de Pont-Neuf became a popular meeting point for many daguerreotypists due to his varied professional activities as a manufacturer of cameras, lenses and silvered plates, a populariser of the technique by means of lessons, and a publisher of textbooks and sophisticated volumes such as Excursions Daguerriennes that were illustrated with engravings based on the first daguerreotypes
Favoured by their expertise in the field, in addition to producing and selling photographic equipment, opticians and manufacturers were some of the first daguerreotypists to produce views of monuments and celebrated sights.
Around 1844 the “art of the daguerreotype”, by now well-established as an amateur activity, was becoming a professional practice thanks to the improvement of the procedure and the easy availability of materials manufactured by the totally new photographic industry, which had taken root in Paris, the city with the largest number of daguerreotype portrait studios in France.
The French Industrial Exposition, held in Paris that year, represented an opportunity to present the new apparatus to the public, in addition to the images produced by the first professional daguerreotypists, including the Bisson brothers, Noël-Marie-Paymal Lerebours, Antoine Claudet, Jean Baptiste Sabatier-Blot and Pierre Victor Plumier. Palais Royal, one of Paris's most fashionable bourgeois districts at the time, became the focus for this burgeoning business that already in 1845 began to move towards the less wealthy districts to the east, due to the growing demand for photographic images not only from the bourgeoisie, but also from the working classes.
The first studios in London were those of Richard Beard and the Frenchman Antoine Claudet who, sensing the commercial advantages of the new invention, had learned the process in Paris directly from Daguerre in autumn 1839. He established a daguerreotype studio in London in 1841 and went on to open several new studios over the next 10 years. John J. Mayall became one of the most fashionable daguerreotypists in London. After working for a short time with Claudet he set up shop in 1846, the same year that William E. Kilburn established a studio in Regent Street, which gained a reputation for beautiful portraits realistically retouched in colour by a miniaturist.
A new professional category with an itinerant operating modality also contributed to the success of the daguerreotype, especially after 1842, this led to the diffusion of the new process to remote and undeveloped regions. These photographers produced most of the daguerreotypes that still exist today. Travelling to the provinces “de passage pour quelque temps”, as proclaimed by the labels on the back of their daguerreotype mountings, or by advertisements and announcements in local newspapers, they generally claimed to be from Paris or some other European capital city, or even that they had been apprenticed to Daguerre himself.
Portrait sessions were held in temporarily rented studios and sometimes also outdoors in the main squares of towns and villages, at fairs, festivals or other communal gatherings, with a white sheet hoisted as the backdrop for the picture. Almost anyone could now afford these images, due to the use of smaller formats, such as the quarter plate (11 x 8cm), the sixth (8 x 7cm) and the ninth (6 x 5cm) which considerably reduced the cost of the chemicals and the plates. These portraits could cost as little as two francs, thus satisfying people’s desire to acquire their own likenesses or that of their loved ones, who were sometimes even photographed “post-mortem”, if it had not been possible while they were alive. Some of these anonymous itinerant daguerreotypists went on to become illustrious photographers, such as Alphonse Bernoud, who established a studio in Italy, or Philibert Perraud, who brought the daguerreotype process to Greece.
From the moment its invention was first announced, the daguerreotype was destined to have a complex and controversial relationship with art, particularly painting, as it seemed to have replaced and invalidated its principal function of mimicking reality. Nevertheless, as the painter Paul Delaroche predicted on the occasion of the official presentation of the procedure, its capacity to accurately represent reality also provided artists with an inexhaustible repertoire of models and studies. Most artists had their own individual approaches to the use of daguerreotypes, and many, such as John Ruskin, although not making daguerreotypes in person, collected and used them for their studies.
Many creatively fruitful collaborations were established between artists and daguerreotypists or fellow artists who were familiar with the process, in order to elaborate their compositions (Rosa Bonheur and Louis-Auguste Bisson), to have their portraits taken (Eugène Delacroix and Léon Riesener), or simply to document their works (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Désiré François Millet, or Léon Gérôme and Gustave Le Gray). A great number of artists devoted their energies to the “new art” and a new breed of “peintres-photographes” started creating daguerreotype images according to their own interests and compositional skills.
Just as interesting were the creations of aristocrats, intellectuals, senior officials and educated landowners: enthusiasts and supporters of the arts and sciences free from professional and commercial motivations, devoted their talents and passions to the realisation of daguerreotypes, whether in their home environments or during journeys abroad.
Some of these amateurs (such as Hippolyte Bayard, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gros, Adolphe Humbert de Molard and Joseph Philibert Girault de Prangey) are now celebrated, but many anonymous daguerreotypes still survive to bear witness to the widespread practice of photography among the wealthier classes. The results that these photographers achieved were often outstanding, showing their ability to capture various hidden and unexpected aspects of everyday life, usually with an exceptional freshness and spontaneity in poses and compositions. For example, the numerous family portraits by the Swiss financier and diplomat Jean-Gabriel Eynard, mostly taken in his houses and gardens, and the mysterious, intimate and pictorial views created by the entrepreneur Jules Savoye on his estate of Montabert, near Troyes are two exceptional collections that represent highly original family albums from the very dawn of photography.
Photographing something means attaching importance to it. This is precisely what daguerreotypists did, leaving us with images that may often seem without meaning, but that we must associate once more with the sense of amazement at the new medium’s capacity to capture all aspects of life, without hierarchies of values – as had hitherto been the case for painting – and to be used to systematically reproduce the world, already with the awareness that this would definitively change the way we perceive and think about the world.
The streets of towns and cities, bourgeois houses, shop fronts, even banal views of the landscape, or simple daily activities, were added to the more “noble” genre scenes and the representations of places and people that art had established in the collective imagination. Descriptive and explanatory information concerning the meaning and the protagonists of these images is often no longer available, as in the case of the view of the now inexistent Rue de Bourgogne, at Bercy, now swallowed up by the large Parisian district of Tolbiac, or the stylish carriage of the gentleman photographer Jean-Gabriel Eynard with his coachman Antoine Jules Lachenal. But the mysteries that lie behind such images makes them just as fascinating and valuable today as they once were for the observers of the time.
By being displayed in frames, protected by precious cases, mounted with jewellery and enclosed inside decorated settings, daguerreotypes maintained the existing aesthetic traditions and their main functions, especially that of the painted miniature, and they soon became objects of affection, allowing people to own and enjoy in private pictures of their loved ones, substituting their presence when they were absent, far away or had even gone forever.
"“I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest artist's work ever produced” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to a friend in 1843."
It was this possibility, accessible to such a large sector of society, to fix and preserve the most vivid and intimate images of one’s family members, and to have the fleeting illusion of reliving the most important moments of their lives – such as a wedding anniversary, a departure on a journey, a visit from friends or relatives – that ensured the popularity of the daguerreotype, also in preference to other photographic processes, and that constituted its most socially revolutionary aspect.
Also the various bourgeois pastimes, the meetings of friends, the celebration of anniversaries, the pride of a lasting partnership or festive and cheerful moments, were depicted and immortalised by the daguerreotype, often by means of the work of skilled amateurs, most of whom are now unknown, but who were themselves the protagonists of the events they photographed.
This was the case of Aristide Castelli, who made a group portrait of 15 Tuscan gentlemen in Viareggio in 1846, whose names he personally recorded on the back of the picture. In such scenes of men and women assembled in the most varied attitudes, which still conjure up the evocative atmospheres of Victorian philanthropic women's clubs or light-hearted gatherings of male companions, the society of the time appears once more before our eyes. These representations, often carefully prepared by their photographers as genuine tableaux vivants, offer us a kind of Comédie humaine, and thanks to them perhaps we can better understand the more worldly functions and uses of the daguerreotype, in which there was an interest above all in the customs and different tendencies prevailing in private life as well as in the social activities of the provinces.
Some of the masterpieces of daguerreotype portraiture in its heyday are striking us today for their spontaneity and psychological insight, as well as the modernity of their compositions, produced by the technical mastery and sophistication of the photographers. Following the reduction of production costs, people of every class and social category flocked to studios in Europe and America, which were often decorated and furnished apartments allowing everyone to be portrayed according to their tastes and social status. Backgrounds painted with landscapes or simply the blue skies with clouds, which are so common in English daguerreotypes, heavy curtains or columns, tables decorated with vases of flowers, statuettes and at least one book, were some of the many accessories and props used for staging these portraits.
The fragile silvered surface of the metal daguerreotype plate was protected from oxidation and abrasion by cardboard or metal framing mats with printed, embossed or gilded decorations and a glass cover, which was sometimes painted. This was then enclosed in a frame or, particularly in Britain and America, a case with a hinged lid made of leather, paper or thermoplastic materials. These elegant daguerreotype cases were usually embellished with gilded, embossed, printed or painted decorations and had padded velvet linings, comparable to containers for painted miniatures. Such expensive and elaborate mountings reflect the high value attributed to these unique and precious objects.
Alongside the more personal and provincial stories, daguerreotypes also immortalised some significant and extraordinary historical events, natural disasters, state ceremonies and funerals, military parades, inaugurations and official commemorations. The revolutions that took place in Europe in 1848-1849 for the affirmation of national independence and liberation from various authoritarian regimes, involving portraits of the political figures and protagonists of the struggles for liberty, was perhaps the most ambitious subject matter tackled by the medium of the daguerreotypes, due to the practical difficulties of the conditions in which photographers had to operate and the frequent reluctance of the subjects to be photographed.
Whenever possible – as in the case of the three extant daguerreotypes taken by Thibault, from a window of the Rue Saint-Maur-Popincourt, during the four bloody days that shook Paris in June 1848 and that caused about 3,000 deaths – these images, the first examples of the genre of reportage, had to be transformed into engravings in order to be publicly circulated and thereby testify to the events, mainly featuring as printed illustrations accompanying the reports in contemporary newspapers. The barricades of Paris, before and after the attack of General Lamoricière’s troops, were reproduced by woodcuts published in L'Illustration on July 8th 1848. At this date short exposure times were not yet possible and events could not be captured in a clear and detailed way. People milling around in crowds or passing by during the shot appear only as blurred lines in most of these scenes, in which monuments and architectural buildings are unavoidably the main subjects
Stereoscopic vision, or the three-dimensional perception of reality depends on the combination within our brains of the two slightly disparate images perceived by our eyes. This physiological mechanism was studied in the nineteenth century by the English physicist Charles Wheatstone, who invented the stereoscope, a display consisting of mirrors and prisms through which pairs of drawings were transformed into a single image with an illusion of depth.
With the introduction of the daguerreotype, it was decided to associate this stunning effect with the perfect reproduction of binocular vision. In 1849 David Brewster, a Scottish experimenter and photography enthusiast who in close contact with Fox Talbot, improved the stereoscope by using lenses to superimpose the two photographic images corresponding to the view of the left and right eyes. Brewster’s lenticular stereoscope was initially manufactured by the Parisian firm Duboscq & Soleil, which helped to refine it and launch it on the market, selling it complete with daguerreotypic pictures.
The new instrument, presented in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London, was a huge success, even attracting the interest of Queen Victoria. A few months later, about 250,000 were sold in England, making it a common object in middle-class households. Through its eyepieces, the user became the spectator of a miniature theatre showing scenes of the most varied places and situations and it became the specialty of several daguerreotypists, especially in Britain. Antoine Claudet, Richard Beard, John J.E. Mayall, Richard Thomas Williams and William E. Kilburn, among others, fully exploited the stereoscope’s potential to create some genuine masterpieces.
Science and travel were central interests in the Romantic period that was also the era of the daguerreotype and the first photographers shared the same view of the world as contemporary writers, scientists, artists and intellectuals. The documentation of landscapes and monuments, as well as living beings, the observation of celestial bodies and the examination of micro-organisms, and the creation of prodigious images that were considered to be absolutely faithful to reality, without the need for an artist’s manual intervention all made an effective contribution to research and study in many different disciplines, revolutionising the forms and modalities of vision over the course of the century.
As Arago predicted in his discourse of January 7th 1839, the visual recording of monuments and archaeological sites was one of the first fields of application of the daguerreotype, supporting and eventually replacing the long and complex task of graphic reproduction and depiction practiced by archaeologists, architects and scholars of antiquity on their field-trips and explorations. The ability of daguerreotypes to faithfully reproduce paintings was more limited and less effective than had been hoped, mainly due to the reduction of the colours to monochrome black and white. The process was very suitable for rendering the plastic characteristics of sculpture and architecture, beautifully showing the contrasts of light and dark and delicate shading, together with the most precise details, but the subtle tonal variations and relationships between the colours of paintings could not be equally well shown.
Several problems still made daguerreotypes difficult to use for art historical purposes such as the systematic categorisation and study of paintings and frescoes in churches, palaces, museums and private collections. There were the difficulties of creating sufficient illumination to compensate for the low sensitivity of the chemical substances involved, in addition to the reflection of light from shiny pictorial surfaces. Above all, the uniqueness of the single copy prevented the daguerreotype from competing with the engraving that, in fact, despite the apprehensions of those who practiced it, still remained the main technique for the reproduction of works of art for a long time.
The motivations that compelled travellers towards “the Orient” were closely connected to the historical and cultural events of burgeoning industrialisation and colonial expansion into North Africa. Victor Hugo stated in the introduction to his collection of poems Les Orientales (1829) that “the entire European continent is turning eastward”. After Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt the Grand Tour expanded to include the southernmost countries of the Mediterranean, due to the fascination with the culture of the Ottoman Empire and particularly Egypt. This country, already at the centre of attention due to extraordinary archaeological discoveries, was becoming a strategic location for the development of European imperialism, being on the sea-route to India.
The industrial revolution and the consequent expansion of transportation soon led to organised tourism, with Egypt and the Holy Land as primary destinations, and from 1835 on there was a regular steam-ship service from Marseille to Alexandria. The first daguerreotypists to operate in these places were affluent men of means, intellectuals and artists excited about the novelty of the new invention, who rushed to learn the necessary techniques before setting off to visit the fabled places of Romantic literature, celebrated in the Orientalist paintings of the annual Salons. This was certainly the case for the painter Horace Vernet, the daguerreotypist Fréderic Goupil-Fesquet and the Canadian Pierre Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, who travelled to Greece in autumn 1839 to take “truthful” pictures of the Acropolis, some of which were then published by Lerebours.
The pictures presented here have been selected from the hundreds of European daguerreotypes that can be accessed and consulted publicly on the websites www.daguerreobase.org and www.europeana.eu. They show us the faces, places and histories of the nineteenth century and testify to the conceptual breakthrough initiated by photography in the field of visual mass communication: that of satisfying, yesterday as in today's digital age, our desire to permanently record the fleeting and unrepeatable moments of our lives.