On August 19, 1839 Louis Daguerre invited members of the French arts and science academies to his studio, where he showed them images from the photographic technique he had discovered.
These pictures, taken with a sliding wooden box camera made by two Parisian opticians, were described as being ‘almost miraculous’, earning him the title of officer in the Legion of Honor, and at the same time, irrevocably changing the way the visual arts were represented.
From the first moment, photography had a dual character. The painter Paul Delaroche was prompted to declare, ‘From today painting is dead.’
Daguerre was the first to find a practical means of capturing the transient image. His breakthrough was not only due to his own tenacity but also to the painstaking research and experiments of others, especially his partner of four years Joseph Nicephore Niépce.
Born in Cormeilles-en-Parisis in the north of France in 1787, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre served an apprenticeship in architecture, panoramic painting and theater design. He excelled at theatrical illusion, using trompe l’oeil effects (optical illusions), and was highly acclaimed as a theater designer, achieving fame for the sunlit stage he painted in 1822 for the Paris Opera production of Aladdin. Later that year he produced his first diorama.
This visual enchantment opened in a purpose-built theater in Paris, and created the ultimate sensation for audiences. It involved illuminating a romantic, painted scene, such as a mountain view or city street, which would change, either subtly or dramatically, by the manipulation of sunlight through skylights, shutters, screens and colored blinds.
His ‘Midnight Mass’ of 1833, for example, opened on the scene of an empty cathedral, where the daylight slowly faded and the sun set, candles were lit, and worshipers filled the place. The organ played a Haydn Mass, then the congregation left, the candles were extinguished and the cathedral appeared empty again. One reviewer remarked, ‘This was magic.’
It was an age when art and science were often to meet, sometimes clashing. Art was becoming commercialized, and increasingly embracing artificial and mechanical means.
Daguerre, in his diorama, which he named ‘The Hall of Miracles’, used the camera obscura as a tool to display scenes that created the illusion of three dimensions, and simulated day passing into night, changes of weather, and even a sense of movement. The diorama was a giant machine that created illusions designed to enthrall the audience and fill them with wonderment.
Both the highly sophisticated mobile lighting system that drew on the latest advances in the science of optics, and the platform for the audience that swung around to give them two, or sometimes three separate views, were very cleverly contrived mechanical devices.
In his book The Romantic Machine, John Tresch relates how one member of the audience reacted, “Even in the front row ‘using the best opera-glasses’ it was impossible to distinguish between real objects and simulations.” Tresch goes on to mention the response to Daguerre’s Mont blanc diorama in the journal L’artiste where one of the aesthetic idealists of the day reasoned that:
true art must avoid the artificial and mechanical: “Should one blame or should one praise M. Daguerre for…adding to the means which painting gave him, artificial and mechanical means, properly speaking?”
but Tresch adds, “Yet others rushed to praise Daguerre as simultaneously an artist, a scientist, and a magician.”
Clearly, Daguerre’s interest in photography was an extension of his theatrical work as a commercial artist in the Hall of Miracles, and Tresch points out the similarity between them:
The diorama and the daguerreotype were seen simultaneously as magical spectacles and as realistic inscriptions of the external world. Their ‘mechanical’ aspect was a source of both trepidation and wonder.[*]
Era of the daguerreotype
When Daguerre heard about the work of his fellow Frenchman Nicephore Niépce from the Chevalier opticians, his curiosity was naturally aroused. Loathe to share his hard-won knowledge, however, Niépce was slow to respond to Daguerre’s requests for a meeting.
Only when Niépce realized that he could no longer financially support his research, did he finally agree to meet Daguerre.
The two inventors formed a partnership in 1929, working to improve the techniques Niépce had already acquired over several years.
At this point, Niépce could produce a positive image from a box camera that was permanent, but needed exposure times of eight hours or longer.
When he died prematurely in 1833, the partners had still not overcome this obstacle but Daguerre had gleaned sufficient knowledge to eventually succeed in this aim. Like Niépce, he treated silver-plated copper sheets with iodide.
The breakthrough came when Daguerre introduced mercury vapor to “develop” the image, reducing the exposure time to a few minutes. A salt solution then served to stabilize the image by removing the remaining iodide. On seeing the image, the subject of which is unknown, Daguerre exclaimed, “I have seized the light; I have arrested its flight!”
The era of the daguerreotype had begun.
The French Government purchased the rights to Daguerre’s invention and published an instruction manual as a “gift to the world”; granting both Daguerre and Isadore, Niépce’s son, a life pension.
In the same year as the daguerreotype appeared, Sir John Herschel introduced into the English language the word “photography”, based on the Greek “photos” (light) and “graphe” (drawing). By 1840, further refinements to the daguerreotype quickly led to a raging fashion in portrait photography.
Painted portraits had always been the preserve of the wealthy, but the daguerreotype was available to almost anyone wishing to have their “likeness” taken at the professional studios that sprang up in nearly every town across Europe and America.
The daguerreotypist presented the sitter with a finished daguerreotype portrait covered by a sheet of protective glass, mounted in a decorative frame and placed inside a leather-bound case. Millions of these were sold over the next 20 years.
Competition across the Channel
When, on the other side of the English Channel, William Fox Talbot heard of the daguerreotype, he rushed to complete his calotype process, beginning to patent it in 1841. The calotype was quite different from the daguerreotype, as it used positive and negative images that contrasted with the sharp and finally detailed daguerreotype on a metal plate, giving a softer image on paper.
But Fox Talbot was at a disadvantage because the French Government had made Daguerre’s method freely available and that made calotype licenses difficult to sell. However, Fox Talbot’s system was eventually to supersede the daguerreotype and directly lead to film photography.
Nonetheless, with their own unique quality and sometimes beauty, surviving daguerreotypes are highly prized today. In fact, a few enthusiasts still use the process, and The Daguerreian Society, which is “dedicated to the history, science, and art of the daguerreotype” unites a strong band of followers in their appreciation of the distinctive daguerreotype.
[*] John Tersch (2012) The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology After Napoleon, University of Chicago Press, p.140.
(This article is part two of a two part series to read the first article click here to read about: The History Of Joseph Niepce And The Camera Obscura)