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What is a Daguerreotype?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 October 2016
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A daguerreotype is a photograph produced using the daguerreotyping process. Daguerreotypes are often regarded as the first viable form of photography, although the technique was quickly supplanted with more effective photographic processes. Some examples of daguerreotypes can be seen on display in museums and facilities which maintain materials relating to the history of photography, and replications of daguerreotypes are often printed in textbooks so that readers can see what historical figures and places really looked like.

The process was developed through a joint effort between Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre and Nicephore Niepce. Niepce died before the process was perfected, leaving Daguerre to finesse the technique, name it after himself, and take the first known daguerreotype in 1837. Two years later, the discovery was announced by the French Academy of Sciences, and the French government declared the daguerreotype a “gift to the world.” The photographic process spread quickly and for the first time, photography became a viable profession.

To take a daguerreotype, the photographer uses a polished photographic plate covered in silver iodide. The plate is exposed to light through a camera, and then fumed over warm mercury until the image develops, at which point the image can be fixed. The resulting image is usually reversed, unless the camera is fitted with a mirror, and it is also extremely fragile and sensitive to both light and heat.

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Historically, daguerreotypes were sold in glass cases so that the glass could protect the image. Even with a protective glass case, many of these images have been lost over time, although there are a few notable surviving images, such as an early portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a United States Senator. Daguerreotyping also had the distinct disadvantage of being a direct photographic process, making the images impossible to replicate and distribute. Copies of daguerreotypes could be made by engraving, but engravings do not capture the same level of detail that a photograph does.

The daguerreotype proved to be a big hit when it was released to the world. Numerous portrait photography studios sprung up in every major city to cater to people demanding photographs. As the process was refined, the time needed for exposure shrank from 15 to 30 minutes to under a minute, making photography more comfortable and workable for portrait subjects. The introduction of the ambrotype in 1854 effectively pushed the daguerreotype out of fashion, but one could say that the daguerreotype paved the way for modern photography by showing that it was possible to make photography commercially viable.

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TreeMan
Post 5

@stl156 - I may be wrong, but I am pretty sure there is a famous daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe that was taken near the end of his life. Besides him, I know there is a famous picture of Robert E. Lee. I would say buying one would be very difficult. Like you mentioned, most of them are probably in museums and collections, and the ones that are sold would probably be very expensive, since they are so rare.

One of the things I always wondered was whether daguerreotypes had frames. I know in a lot of the pictures you see, they have frames, but I didn't know if that was normal or if those were just replicas that were framed later. Like the article mentions, a lot of them were put in class cases to protect them, so it seems like a frame would have been unlikely. Does anyone know or have an idea?

stl156
Post 4

@jmc88 - I would be interested in that as well. I bet there are some French daguerreotypes of famous people, since that is where it was first invented. Napoleon would have been dead by that time, so there wouldn't be any pictures of him. I'm sure he would have had a few famous photographs. I don't know of any other famous European leaders around that time.

Does anyone know if there is any way to buy a daguerreotype? How long were they around until the next picture taking technique came around? Of course you wouldn't be able to get any of the famous pictures, I'm sure all of those are in museums and private collections, but I think it would be neat if you could own one of the early pictures. I wonder how much one of them would cost?

jmc88
Post 3

@matthewc23 - I think part of the smiling thing is that most of the early pictures were taken of important people. The article doesn't say it, but I would expect a picture cost a lot of money back then. If you were an important person getting your picture, you wouldn't want to look silly with a smile.

I think it is very convenient that the first cameras were made right before the Civil War began. I think it introduced a whole new period of American society. Instead of just guessing what people looked like from paintings, daguerreotype photography let you see exactly what the person looked like.

I am familiar with a lot of the famous daguerreotypes from America around that time, but where there any pictures of other famous people from around the world then?

matthewc23
Post 2

@jennythelib - I agree, it would be very hard to sit still for a picture. One of the interesting things about early pictures is that no one smiled. It seems odd now, but back then photographs were seen as being similar to a painting, and no one smiled in paintings. I assume part of it probably was the amount of time they took.

I am curious what would happen if someone did move while they were in the middle of getting a picture taken. Obviously, no one could sit perfectly still for 15 minutes, so there was some bit of error that could be compensated for, but I wonder what the picture would look like if the person stood up in the middle. Would it look like there were two different people in the picture?

jennythelib
Post 1

Can you image sitting precisely still even for "under a minute" to have a daguerreotype photo made!

Today, I don't think we could do it at all. I think the only reason it worked then was that people were better trained to sit still. I was a big fan of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when I was a kid - the "Little House" books, although not all of them had that in the title - and I was amazed at what was expected of them. Seven-year-old children sitting in school or church and trained not to scratch. Sitting still all day Sunday, no playing of any kind.

With that kind of childhood training, no wonder an adult could sit so still for close to a minute that the photo wouldn't blur. Today... not a chance!

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