Daguerreotypes were the earliest photographic process that was practical to produce commercially. Each daguerreotype was a unique image captured on a copper plate. Although it was a complicated process that required skill and many pieces of equipment, many were eager to try their hand at it. This process captured highly detailed images in a way that had never been done before. Samuel Morse, inventor of the single-wire telegraph, wrote a letter to the New York Observer calling the daguerreotype “one of the most beautiful discoveries of the age.” Word of the invention and “daguerreotypomania” spread throughout Europe, the United States, and Canada.
A daguerreotype of an unidentified man and woman (back). Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: PA-3579-4. Anita Dammer photo.
A daguerreotype of an unidentified man and woman (front). Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: PA-3579-4. Anita Dammer photo.
A daguerreotype of two unidentified girls (back). Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: PA-3215-15. Anita Dammer photo.
History of the format
The daguerreotype was named after its inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. In 1829, Daguerre partnered with Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of heliography, the first photographic process. Niépce was already using a camera obscura to produce images, but Daguerre was trying to find ways to permanently fix images with a camera. Niépce died in 1833, but Daguerre continued their work and produced his first fixed images in 1837. His process was presented on August 19, 1839, by François Arago, a scientist and member of the French legislature, before the French Academies of Sciences and Fine Arts. The French government bought Daguerre’s invention, and it was given freely to the world, except England, where it was patented. News of the daguerreotype spread and was reported in newspapers, including Canadian newspapers such as the Quebec Gazette and Le Canadien. Daguerreotypes remained in use until c. 1860, as the less expensive ambrotype had been invented.
Each daguerreotype was a unique direct-positive image taken on a silver-coated copper plate. The plate was first polished until it had a mirrored surface (The mirror-like surface is evident in the above left image). Once polished, iodine fumes were used to make the plate light sensitive. To take an image, the plate was then exposed in a camera obscura. Heated mercury was used to develop the plate, and a salt solution fixed the image. Exposure time had originally been up to fifteen minutes long. Improvements to photographic lenses and to the sensitization process, by adding “accelerators” like bromine or chlorine to the iodine fumes, shortened exposure time. Depending on the angle it is viewed from, daguerreotypes will appear as a negative, as does the woman’s portrait above on the right. This is because of its reflective nature and how the particles that form the image scatter light.
How it was used
Initially, daguerreotypes were still images of landscapes or architecture because of the long exposure time needed. Later, with improvements to Daguerre’s original process, portrait-taking became easier, as the length of time someone had to sit still in bright light shortened. Photographic studios cropped up to produce “likenesses” of customers. Many studios in Canada were set up by Americans. In the above ad, the studio Ellisson & Co. boasted of “likenesses executed at this establishment in the best and cheapest styles.” More people could afford to get their portrait taken, as a daguerreotype was more affordable than previous options, like having one painted. Millions of portraits were taken in the short time daguerreotypes remained in use before other improved photographic processes replaced them.
Graphic Atlas gives an in-depth overview of daguerreotypes, as well as other photographic types.
Watch a photographer prepare and take a daguerreotype (3:22) from the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Watch daguerreotype conservation ( 4:43) from Library and Archives Canada.