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People & Events
The Daguerreotype is Invented


Daguerreotype While credit for the invention of photography is highly contested -- and is bound to be for the foreseeable future -- there is no denying that Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis J. M. Daguerre both played central roles.

The son of a Counselor to King Louis XVI of France, Niépce survived the French Revolution with his family fortune intact, which allowed him to pursue his interest in inventions. In 1816 he obtained a camera obscura and began taking images of landscapes on paper soaked in photosensitive silver chloride. At first, these images were blurry and faded to nothing after a day. When he began producing positive prints from the original plates, he was able to obtain longer-lasting images, but the results were still crude. A chance discussion in a shop where camera obscuras were sold then brought Niépce to the attention of Louis Daguerre.

Originally a specialist in trompe l'oeil effects (optical illusions), Daguerre was already famous in Paris for the sunlit stage he had painted in February 1822 for the Paris Opera's production of "Aladdin," and more so for his Diorama, a 350-seat theater at 4 rue Sanson that presented backlit images on a stage for the enjoyment of large audiences. Daguerre's profession naturally led him to be curious about Niépce's work, and by 1829 they were collaborating. Niépce and Daguerre generated images exposed by the sun on bitumen, but Niépce never lived to see these joint efforts bear fruit. As it was, Daguerre, who continued after Niepce's death in 1833, met with success only by accident. In 1835 he placed his plates in a cabinet, not knowing that a container of mercury had a leak in it and was emitting vapor into the enclosed space, thus creating the first daguerreotype.

With his first successful picture in hand in 1837, Daguerre paraded his invention by cart through the streets of Paris, hoping to solicit licenses for its use. This approach achieved limited success, but in 1839 the eminent scientist Francois Arago promoted the process and the daguerreotype became a veritable sensation. Before the year was out, Daguerre's instruction booklet ran to 30 editions and was translated into eight languages. By 1845 Parisians were buying 2,000 cameras and three million plates a year.

Upon seeing his first daguerreotype, the painter Paul Delaroche declared, "From today painting is dead," and Samuel F. B. Morse, an accomplished painter as well as the inventor of the telegraph, apparently agreed. Morse happened to be in Paris just as the daguerreotype craze was blooming, and he arranged to meet Daguerre on March 2 and 9 of 1839. Looking through a microscope at Daguerre's plates, he was amazed to be able to read every letter of a street sign. It was, he said, "Rembrandt perfected." (In one of fate's cruel twists, Daguerre's Diorama was burning to the ground even as this meeting was going on.)

Back in New York, Morse set himself up as a daguerreotype instructor to pupils that came to include Matthew Brady, whose Civil War photographs achieved lasting fame, and Edward Anthony, who would go on to become one of George Eastman's first dry-plate clients. The daguerreotype thus began its American career on a respectable note. The aura of high art did not last long, however.

While Britain required licenses for the taking of daguerreotypes, America placed no such restrictions on the profession. In rural areas, a daguerrotypist could go so far as to pose as a magician before the unsuspecting villagers, "especially," writes photography historian Robert Taft, "if he had a smattering of phrenology."

A long debunked science, phrenology espoused the doctrine that a person's character, as concealed in the brain, was revealed by the shape of the skull. By 1846 the twin crazes of phrenology and the daguerrotype had become so inextricably entwined that the journalist E. Littell could write:
Daguerreotypes properly regarded are the indices of human character. Lavater judged of men by their physiognomies; and in a voluminous treatise has developed the principles by which he was guided. The photograph, we consider to be the grand climacteric of the science.… It has been said that the inhalation of exhilarating gas is a powerful artificial agent for disclosing weaknesses of human nature. In reality, however, the sitting for a daguerreotype, far surpasses all other expedients.
In this sense, the daguerreotype invoked something vaguely evil. The "New York Sunday Courier," picked up this theme with "The Magnetic Daguerreotype," the story of a scientist who captures a woman's image by "electro-galvanic" means. From then on, the woman is haunted by the scientist's ability to see her innermost thoughts, even as he becomes plagued by her seemingly living portrait. The power to steal souls had been born.

Yet people demanded to be robbed at the drop of a hat. By 1841 New York City boasted 100 studios, each set up after the fashion of elegant parlors. By 1853 there were 37 parlors on Broadway alone, and on the banks of the Hudson, a town one mile south of Newburgh had been named Daguerreville.


written by David Lindsay

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