Sunday, September 9, 2012

The birth of photography: Daguerre and the daguerrotype

In 1939 the French Académie des sciences published the invention of the daguerrotype process and almost immediately, purchased the technique and made a present of it to the world. It is hard to overestimate the transcendence of this new way to represent reality and its value as a tool for research.
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre is, together with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of the daguerreotype process. Daguerre and Niépce had entered a partnership in 1829 and worked together until the latter's death in 1833, when Isidore Niépce would take his father's place. A decade in total was spent further experimenting on the basis of Niépce's discoveries - he had produced the first heliograph or permanent photograph of the rooftops of Paris from his window in 1826-7. The inventors would receive life pensions from the French government but only one would see his name live on, as two new words entered humanity's vocabulary: daguerreotype and daguerreotypist. The two largest daguerreotype collections in the world are the one at Eastman House, with approximately 500 daguerreotypes, and the one at the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris.

Portrait of Louis Daguerre in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot. [Source: Wikipedia]
The process
The daguerreotype image is formed on a highly polished silver surface over a copper - or other metals, such as brass or even pure silver - substrate, but other metals can be used. The usual stock material in the nineteenth century was Sheffield plate, produced by fusion-plating or by electroplating or, alternatively, by a combination of the two techniques. Over the plate, a coating with a compound of iodine, bromine and chlorine, applied in a dark room, will make it sensitive to the light. Polished smooth and clean, it becomes the background, by reflection, upon which the picture will be created by exposure to light in a camera obscura.

Daguerreotype camera built by La Maison Susse Frères in 1839, with a lens by Charles Chevalier. Chevalier provided lenses both for Niépce and Daguerre, and is credited to have introduced them to each other. [Source: Wikipedia]
Depending on the sensitization chemistry used - the composition of all chemical materials experienced rapid change since the very beginning - the brightness of the lighting, and the light-concentrating power of the lens, the required exposure time ranged from a few seconds to minutes and even hours.

I Clipping (in France, bending back) the corners of the plate and bending the edges so as not to catch any of the materials used when II Polishing the silver side to obtain as nearly perfect a mirror finish as possible, optimizing the quality of the end product and then swab the surface with nitric acid to burn off any residual organic matter. III Sensitization in darkness, or by the light of a safe light (red, it was soon discovered), the silver surface was exposed to fumes and then carried to the dark camera in a light-tight holder.  IV Exposure of the plate within the dark camera by removing a cap from the camera lens, creating an invisible latent image on the plate. When the exposure was judged to be complete, the lens was capped and the holder was again made light-tight and removed from the camera. V Development of the latent image by several minutes of exposure in a developing box to the fumes given off by heated mercury.  VI Fixing to arrest the light sensitivity of the plate, the remaining silver compound was removed. VII Gilding, also called "gold toning" - an addition to Daguerre's process that soon became standard procedure - gave the steely gray image obtained a slightly warmer tone and physically reinforced the powder-like, i.e. enormously fragile, silver particles of which it was composed. VIII Sealing, would avoid tarnishing or marring the finished plate, which was bound up with a protective cover glass and sealed with strips of paper soaked in gum arabic. In the US and UK, a gilt brass mat was normally used to separate the image surface from the glass, while in the rest of Europe a thin cardboard mat or passepartout usually served that purpose. [Source: Wikipedia]

All aspects of the technique would experience constant and rapid changes, decreasing exposure time, and increasing the accuracy and durability of the end result. Efforts to mechanize the most intensive parts of the procedure were soon successful.
Practical considerations: time of exposure, head rests and first props
A sitter for a daguerrotype would need to be completely still during the whole time of exposure in order to avoid blurring the image irreparably. Daguerre himself expressed scepticism regarding the possibility of portraiture when exposure times were up to 20 minutes long.

Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, ca. 1838. Daguerrotype. Daguerre was the inventor of the new medium, which at the beginning could only reproduce things that stood mostly still for minutes at a time. This view is one of the very first examples of daguerreotype. It shows a busy street in Paris, but no moving traffic because of the over ten-minute exposure time it cannot appear. At the lower left, however, a man is apparently having his boots polished, and we can see at his feet the bootblack polishing them. They were motionless enough for their images to be captured. [Source: Wikipedia]

Cromer's Amateur, Organ Grinder on street with children passing, ca. 1848. Daguerrotype. The children, moving, appear as mere shadows in the picture. Only the organ grinder, looking straight at the camera with his head slightly tilted to his right in an amiable gesture, appears clear to the viewer. [Source: George Eastman House]

Only when exposure time was significantly reduced - the total amount of exposure time would always depend on the brightness of the light at the photographer's disposal - to just some minutes, portraiture was considered.
Minutes, however, are still a long time to sit for a portrait completely immobile. As early as August 1939, The Athenaeum suggested that ‘the head could be fixed by means of supporting apparatus’. Sitters would be helped by the head rest, a metallic contraption composed of a metallic rod with a heavy cast iron base and column and a piece for resting the head. This aide would remain in use, and sold by photographic suppliers, until the first decades of the twentieth century.

Left: a headrest for use behind a chair. Centre: a large headrest for standing figures. The arm and crutch at the top steady the head while a cushion on the vertical stand steadies the upper body, preventing any swaying movement. Right: a headrest designed for attachment to the back of a posing chair. [Source: Art Gallery of South Australia]
Head rests were meant to be a delicate support for the pose, not a rigid fixture against which the figure was to lean. Writing in 1868, artist and amateur photographer William Lake Price, emphasised the need for them because, although sitters would claim they were indeed capable of remaining ‘perfectly immoveable’ during the exposure, and therefore, not needing a head rest, they actually could not, resulting in failure. His advice to operators about the way to use it properly was:
‘the best, indeed the only way, to use it properly, is to let the sitter go into a natural position of the body and head, and then gently to advance the crutch until it just touches him‘.

The contraption, of course, was made fun of:

Cartoonists doing what they do best. [Source: Art Gallery of South Australia]
An unflinching portrayal of reality?
Photography was used to document reality...

Self-portrait with Laboratory Instruments, by Robert Cornelius, 1843. The composition is unconventional, as his face is almost completely covered by his hand. [Source: George Eastman House]
... But also to create a fictional one.

The inscription reads Dr. MacBeth in the Costume in Which He Crossed the Plains, Fleeing from the Cholerea [sic] of Which He Died. This daguerreotype with applied color,  ca. 184 , by an unidentified photographer, uses an abundance of props to help us recognize the subject by the symbols of his subject's life. [Source: George Eastman House]
Portraiture using daguerreotypes became immensely popular. For the first time in history, people of modest means could obtain an exact likeness of themselves or their loved ones for a moderate cost. Daguerreotypists settled at a studio or itinerant individuals travelling from town to town encouraged not only celebrities and political figures to have their pictures taken, but also ordinary tradesmen and workers, proud of their skills and their professions, to spend nearly a day’s wages to have a photographic portrait made.
A flourishing market in portraiture sprang up, predominantly the work of itinerant practitioners who travelled from town to town.

Advertisement for E. S. Hayden, a travelling daguerreotype photographer, not dated. Announcement printed by "American Office Print Waterbury, Ct" (at the bottom). [Source: Wikipedia]

The invention would be immediately and enthusiastically adopted in the United States following its introduction by Samuel Morse. By 1853, it is estimated that three million daguerreotypes were being produced per year. While it is not surprising that a young, dynamic nation would embrace technological advancements at the same pace they were appeared, daguerreotypes became known and likewise adopted in a country just opening to Western culture, Japan.

Albert Sands Southworth, ca. 1848, by the Southward & Hawes Studio. Southworth (1811–1894) operated Southworth & Hawes daguerreotype studio  together with Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808–1901) from 1843 to 1863.  They both took frequent portraits of each other, so they knew what was required from a sitter to obtain a portrait. In this case, the daguerreotype is vignetted, giving it an intimate mood. [Source: Wikipedia]

Portrait of Shimazu Nariakira, the daimyō of Satsuma Province (now Kagoshima Prefecture), in formal attire by Ichiki Shirō taken in 1857. According to Ichiki's memoirs - compiled in 1884 -, Shimazu obtained the first daguerreotype camera ever imported into Japan and ordered his retainers to study it and produce working photographs. Due to the limitations of the lens used and the lack of formal training, it took some years for achieve the desired result, and the oldest documented Japanese photography. [Source: Wikipedia]
For the photos:
The George Eastman House (the Cromer collection and their flickr page) are an invaluable resource for researchers.
A working (at the moment of publication) link is provided for each.

For the text:
George Eastman House "1000 Photo Icons", p 40-2, 56. Taschen 2002
Wikipedia, several entries.
The heliograph, the Harris Ransom center.
The head rest and props, The Art Gallery of South Australia.
The extension of the practice of daguerreotyping: World Digital Library.

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