August 19, 1839 was an important day for Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. It was on that day that his years of tinkering and diligence was announced as a gift “free to the world” by King Louis Philippe-I of France.
With his invention bought over by the French government, and printed instruction material available in supply, he had successfully delivered a reliable and repeatable method of adding permanency to life’s fleeting moments for the entire world to practice and cherish. His inventions spurred subsequent inventions and whole industries that followed be it in art, optics, printmaking, cinema, acting, journalism and television or industries where it could be applied such as medicine, law, computing and now social media. His invention ensured that the photograph plays an central role in all of them.
Louis Daguerre was born in 1787 in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, Val-d’Oise in France. In his beginnings he was a painter and an apprentice of architecture apart from delving into theatre design. Before delving into photography, he came to invent and become the proprietor of the Diorama, which was a popular form of theatre featuring theatrical painting and lighting effects.
In the mid-1820’s Daguerre began searching for a means of trapping fleeting images that he saw in his camera obscura. The obscura was a box shaped device used by draftsmen and artists with a lens on one side, with a prism in the middle that reflected the image onto a frosted sheet of glass on the other end. A draftsman or artist would patiently stand on the other end with a sheet of tracing paper to sketch out the scene as reflected on that piece of glass.
It should be noted that Daguerre was not the only one working on developing a process of adding permanency to these projected images. Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot was one notable figure and Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce was the other.
In 1829, the two Frenchmen, Niépce and Daguerre decided to form a partnership to collectively solve this problem. Niépce had achieved very limited but encouraging results as early as 1826. Their association was mutually benefitting as they helped refine the chemistry required in the process. Niépce was using Asphalt based chemistry, popularly called ‘Bitumen of Judea’ which was a naturally occurring salt that would harden when exposed to light. He would then remove the unhardened salt with a solvent, resulting faint, gradated image. It is then that they decided to shift to light sensitive silver based salts, which were easier to work with. However, one major problem remained, long exposure time.
When Niépce died in 1833, the partnership was yet to bare fruit, with a proper, practical and easily repeatable process of trapping light images, yet to be developed. Daguerre continued to tinker on in search for answers.
Later, in 1835, on a cloudy day, Daguerre had a pivotal but lucky breakthrough. After setting up his camera in his laboratory, to replicate a still life scene, he pulled out the ground glass plate serving as a viewfinder and removed the light proof box containing the photographic plate out of his laboratory closet. After inserting the box in his camera and removing the cover protecting the plate, he began the exposure. Notably, at this time in his practice, the average exposure time was of a few hours atleast. When dark clouds appeared in the sky, blotting out the sun, Daguerre decided it was best to interrupt the exposure and abandon activities for the day. He removed the plate from the camera and put it back in his closet with the rest of his chemicals. On returning the next day, he intended to reuse the briefly exposed plate. When he checked the plate to see if it was still usable, he opened the box, only to find himself looking at an image of the previous days’ still life set up. Some chemical substance in the cabinet had developed the plate overnight. Daguerre subsequently discovered, that the agent was mercury vapour, which had leaked out from a broken thermometer. This was the breakthrough he had been looking for all along. The vapour from the mercury has drastically reduced exposure time from hours to minutes.
Encouraged by this he looked to find investors who could fund his project. He found one in Francois Arago who was a member of the French Administration and an eminent Astronomer. In his undertaking, Daguerre was able to refine the process even further, and ultimately on January 7th 1839, he presented his process to a joint session of the Academie des Sciences (Academy of Sciences) and the Academie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) as a first step to making the idea public.
Financial problems forced Daguerre to sell his invention to the he French government (for 6000 Francs) in exchange of a life long pension. Daguerre however held onto the rights to the process and the equipment which enabled him to earn royalties from cameras, and other equipment such as boxes, fumigation chambers and silver clad copper plates needed to practice the Daguerreotype.
Across the world though, photography was born and throughout Europe, the Daguerreotype age of photography ensued leading to small studios opening up in towns and cities offering individual and family portraits to those who could afford it. Travelling studios emerged, often run by nomadic tradesman who went from one town to the other offering to make portraits for small sums of money. Gentlemen of the nobility, who could afford to have a “expensive hobby” for learning outfitted themselves with the necessary equipment to make personal images of their friends and family. The first adaptors of the form were ofcourse artists who quickly realized the potential of the medium. Some blended the two forms by hand colouring Daguerreotype images with paints.
Throughout his life, Daguerre considered his invention to traverse both art and science and a near perfect blend of the scientific method and aesthetics. He photographed still life, life scenes and antique sculpture as much as he photographed insects, bugs, flowers and fossil.
Unfortunately, very few survive to this day, underscoring the permanency of his invention. The majority of his early work and notes burned to the ground along with his Diorama and laboratory on the 8th of March 1839. Going by written records, only 25 surviving images across the world can be safely attributed to him, giving us only a thinly sliced look into the genesis of photography and the first images.
Daguerre died on 10 July in 1851 leaving humanity with its most creative outlet till date.
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