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The Invention of Photography – The Daguerreotype Essay

Photography has become the catalyst for social and cultural memory and a tool for scientific advancement. The world owes a great deal to the early inventors of the latent image for their patience and skill, for without photography one might consider the world an unmemorable place. The first step in photography’s dissemination into the world came by way of a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre. His process known as the daguerreotype’s quickly circulated throughout the Western world, and Daguerre, from the day of the daguerreotype announcement in August 1839, became known to the world as the father of photography.

Understanding the importance of Daguerre’s process of the daguerreotype requires an analysis with three particular categories; the first being the historical context in which the process was created. Secondly, social and cultural significance of the daguerreotype era plays a vital role in how the process is understood as a photographic object, and how it functioned in the society in which it thrived in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Thirdly, one must examine the process of deterioration and preservation to be aware of the physical nature of the object, and methods of ensuring the longevity of the image.

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Amalgamating these components will allow for a full analysis of a daguerreotype image and provide a case for the importance of daguerreotype images within photographic collections. Historically, the antecedent to the invention of photography can be traced as far back as the fifth century BC when Mo Ti recorded that “the reflected light rays of an illuminated object passing through a pinhole into a darkened enclosure resulted in an inverted but otherwise exact image of the object. This concept of using a small aperture to project images resulted in inquisitive experiments through the following centuries until the Renaissance when a device was created that would manage and direct this optical phenomenon. The apparatus was called the camera obscura, literally translated to “dark room” and “is basically a dark chamber, or box, with an opening at one end through which light passes. The light entering the camera obscura falls onto the wall opposite to form an image. ” The device became a popular tool for those interested in rendering an exact pictorial representation of physical nature.

Algarotti, a writer on art and science in the latter half of the eighteenth century, advocated the use of the camera obscura stating that “Painters should make the same use of the Camera Obscura, which Naturalists and Astronomers make of the microscope and telescope; for all these instruments equally contribute to make known, and represent Nature. ” The camera obscura and the science of light rays continued to develop throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as technology advanced.

Further developments were made to the camera obscura by adding lenses of different lengths to sharpen and broaden the image. The experiments with light and perception were then coupled with the knowledge of chemical compounds that would later lead to photographic science. In 1725 Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that “silver nitrate darkened when exposed to sunlight and that this change was the result of exposure to light and not heat. ” This discovery is crucial to photography as it forms the basis for the science of the medium.

As time progressed, experiments involving silver halides and their reaction with light slowly crept closer to the invention of photography. Particularly, the work of Thomas Wedgwood and Humphry Davy was an immense contribution to photographic science. Wedgwood and Humphry discovered that “it was possible to chemically transfer by means of light,” and had they been able to find a way to arrest the development of the silver salts photography may have been introduced forty years earlier. The stage was set for photography, and successful experiments were recorded during the same time as Daguerre worked on his theory.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce, who would become Daguerre’s partner, played a crucial role in the daguerreotype’s development. Without Niepce’s experiments daguerreotypes may not have been on a metal support. Niepce worked with a process he called Heliography, meaning sun-writing. In this process he used bitumen, a material “that hardens and becomes insoluble when exposed to light. ” He used glass and pewter coated with bitumen as supports for the transfer of engravings. The engraving would be made translucent with lavender oil or varnish and placed against the bitumen.

Placing the sandwich into the sunlight for exposure “the bitumen hardened on the portions not covered by the lines of the print and remained soluble on the rest of the plate; after washing, an image appeared with the bare pewter forming the line. ” In 1827 Niepce created his famous positive-negative image from his home in France using a camera obscura with a pewter plate coated with bitumen placed inside the camera. During the same time period, William Henry Fox Talbot was working in England on his calotype process.

Talbot used writing paper coated with silver nitrate and soaked in a solution of potassium iodide to create what he termed iodized paper. Before the paper was exposed a solution of silver nitrate and gallic acid was used to coat the iodized paper. The treated paper was then exposed in the camera using an exposure time from one minute to an hour. A latent image was formed by the action of light on the treated paper. In a darkened room, the paper was then washed in another bath of silver nitrate and gallic acid to develop the latent image.

The paper would then be washed in a fixing solution of potassium bromide or a solution of hypo. A positive image could be made from the calotype negative and was usually done so by using Talbot’s original process of salted paper, which yielded the best results from the negative. This process included soaking a sheet of paper in table salt, and when dried, brushing on a solution of silver nitrate as to embed light-sensitive silver chloride into the paper fibers. Sandwiched under glass against the calotype negative and exposed to bright sunlight a visible positive image appeared.

The image would be fixed, as the negative was, washed and dried. Talbot’s process was introduced to the world in 1841, but under the restriction of a patent, which is one reason the daguerreotype generated a greater popularity in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Daguerre himself was also experimenting with trying to fix the image produced in the camera obscura. His interest was a result of his work with the Diorama in Paris. The Diorama was a popular form of entertainment in the 1830’s of which Daguerre was the creator and proprietor.

Daguerre used his skill to render the effect of light to create the illusion of time and movement on mural sized paintings. In so doing, the Diorama provided the illusion of a moving picture show. Daguerre used the camera obscura to aid in his paintings for the Diorama, which triggered his interest in a method of freezing the reflected image of the camera. The collaboration between Daguerre and Niepce began in 1827 when the two men were introduced by their mutual optician in Paris, Charles Chevalier, who noticed both were working towards a common goal in their experiments.

After two years of communication Daguerre and Niepce entered into a partnership to mutually work towards fixing an image. After Niepce’s death in 1833 Daguerre took the basis of his research and continued to improve on the theories of using a silver plate coated with iodine. It was in 1835 when Daguerre discovered that mercury fumes could bring the latent image to surface on the exposed silver plate. Further investigation lead Daguerre to discover that a solution of common table salt and hot water would stop further development of the image.

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Daguerre realized the potential of his findings, and immediately began to seek a venue to sell his invention. It was through the collaboration with esteemed scientist Francois Arago that Daguerre achieved his financial reward. An agreement was met between Niepce’s son, Isidore, to name the process the daguerreotype as Daguerre felt he had furthered the process enough to call it his own. Arago introduced the daguerreotype to the Academie des Sciences in France on August 19, 1839 to rave reviews. A booklet was produced detailing the process and descriptive drawings of the equipment used.

The daguerreotype process that was given free to the world was made on a sheet of silver-plated copper polished to mirror-like luminosity. The plate was exposed to the fumes of iodine to create a light sensitive silver halide. A latent image would then be formed on the silver plate after an in-camera exposure. The plate was then exposed to mercury fumes, which act as a catalyst to bring the silver particles to the surface of the plate. Finally, the image was fixed in a bath of sodium thiosulfate to remove the remaining photosensitive silver.

The brilliance of the image in its tonal range and its unsurpassed ability to render detail are due to the microscopic scattering of silver particles. The result is a reversed, unique image suggested by Arago in his address to the Academie des Sciences, as having multiple uses in the sciences and the hopes of portraiture. The daguerreotype quickly disseminated around the Western world, and although it was a French invention, it thrived in America. Samuel F. B. Morse, who had witnessed Daguerre’s invention in Paris, first introduced America to the daguerreotype in 1839 in an article in the New York Observer.

The photographic medium was embraced by Americans, and according to Allan Trachtenberg, this was because of the social and political climate of the late 1830’s. America was undergoing reform in many social institutions and scientific methodologies. Forums for the practice of daguerreotypy quickly emerged within the social context of America, and the daguerreotype aided in the projection of new ways of thinking and pushed the impetus of American nationalism. The proliferation of the use of the daguerreotype for portraiture was overwhelming in America.

Further advancement with Daguerre’s process made it possible to achieve shorter exposure times, and therefore, made portraiture a possibility. The daguerreotype replaced the expensive painted miniature, making it achievable for the common person to afford a portrait. Portrait studios sprung up all over the country, particularly on the east coast where there were thousands making money off of the new, highly demanded medium. Most notable of these practitioners are Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes who had a studio in Boston. The two men were highly regarded for their extreme skill and exceptionally executed portraits.

Daguerreotypes made by Southworth and Hawes are noted for their lighting, composition and posing. Compared to other portrait daguerreotypes, Southworth and Hawes exemplify the height of the medium as an art form. As seen in figure 1, the young ladies appear natural and graceful. The image projects a mood with carefully directed lighting and artful composition. The daguerreotype portrait was readily accepted into American culture as a tactile object. Replacing the painting miniature, the daguerreotype because of its fragile surface was placed into protective and decorative castings.

The casings of daguerreotypes are important in their function in society, as they attribute to the precious and sentimental value of the object that would be handled and reviewed regularly. To create a daguerreotype case “a mat was placed in front of the image with a piece of glass in front of that, and all was permanently held in place by sealing paper around the edges. By 1847 a small frame of paper-thin brass called a mat preserver further wrapped the edges and became popular as an extra protection and enhanced decoration for the presentation.

The whole unit was in a miniature case, and the item was complete. ” This protective casing not only allowed for the handling of the portraits, but also added a decorative and lavish embellishment. The casing can also be used as a dating method. The image in figure 2 has no known information, however, the mat preserver has lead the author to estimate the image was made between 1850 and 1860, as this form of mat preserver was used during that decade. The daguerreotype also played a significant role in new methodologies surrounding scientific milieus.

Arago predicted the daguerreotype’s value to supply “immediate and faithful detail for astronomers, naturalists, and physicians who had formerly relied on the skillful but subjective hand of the artist to copy objects of research. ” The extreme depth and detail of the daguerreotype image provided a visual record inconceivable by the human hand. The benefit to scientific cataloging and visual records was unsurpassable. The daguerreotype was also used in the science of polygenesis, which during the latter half of the nineteenth century was based on the belief that each race was a distinct species.

Louis Agassiz’s slave daguerreotypes (figure 3) exemplify the racial and political uses of photography during this time period. The images of the slaves “had two purposes, one nominally scientific, the other frankly political. They were designed to analyze the physical difference between European whites and African blacks, but at the same time they were meant to prove the superiority of the white race. ” The Agassiz images are an example of the discursive uses that daguerreotypes were used to support.

The nature of the subject matter within the daguerreotypes took on a meaning that projected the cultural theories and atheistic values of the politics of race in the nineteenth century. Whether a daguerreotype image was being used for portraiture or science the image was appropriated into the social context of the nineteenth century. The daguerreotype image changed the mechanics of self representation and created an industry in America that became monumental in cultural and political framework of a restructuring nation.

Daguerreotypes brought to science a meticulous visual record, unsurpassed by anything the human hand could render, which pushed scientific fields in new methods of discovery. Furthermore, the daguerreotype was used to support the controlling forces of the period. The nature of the image in its clarity and brilliance, created a visual truth that could not be denied due to the daguerreotype’s reputation of a lucid and objective representation of reality.

Understanding the daguerreotype requires an analysis of the make-up of the image structure, and the implications of deterioration so as to protect the irreplaceable, unique object. As can be seen in a microscopic image, “the image is encoded on the array of particles on the plate’s surface. Understanding the interaction of the particle-studded surface with reflected light allows us to account for image appearance, quality, and the loss of image when daguerreotypes become tarnished or corroded. ” Susan Barger and William White suggest that the daguerreotype is defined by the microstructure rather than the chemical composition.

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Therefore, the silver-mercury particles that form the image on the plate will inevitably change over time and cause deterioration of the plate surface and alter the appearance of the image. The image in figure 2 has noticeable tarnish deterioration around the mat edge. This coloured tarnish is a complicated chemical compound primarily based on silver oxide, as such, the silver particles darken with age and produced the tarnish damage that is visible in figure 4. The image in figure 2, and the microscopic enhancement of that image in figure 4, conveys a strongly constructed image structure.

This is known because of the highly visible negative-positive image on the plate and clear definition of tone. The author is lead to believe that this plate would have been created with multiple halide coatings. Adding bromine and a second coating of iodine to the plate before exposure in the camera was an advancement made after Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype. Susan Barger explains that “the major contribution of multiple sensitizations is that it improves the possibility of forming the optimal microstructure which will produce the best visible image. The image stability in figure 2 would also suggest that the daguerreotype has not been a victim to harsh cleaning methods that were employed in the early part of the twentieth century. Daguerreotypes have been casualties of untimely corrosion due to improper and harmful cleaning methods. Due to the delicate microstructure of the image the use of solvent cleaners, such as potassium cyanide, to remove tarnish has also removed part of the image structure, namely, silver, mercury, gold and copper.

The use of inappropriate cleaners has caused many daguerreotypes prior to the 1970’s to suffer from image fading. The growth of molds can also plague daguerreotypes caused by the decomposition of the glass cover. Cleaning methods have been highly tested and monitored over the past thirty years by Susan Barger and her colleagues. Barger suggests that the electrocleaning process is the safest and most efficient method of cleaning tarnish corrosion. Using this method, a silver wand is used to target the problem areas while the daguerreotype is placed in a bath of ammonium hydroxide.

Using electrodes and electrolytes the daguerreotype is spot cleaned resulting in successful removal of tarnish while keeping the microstructure unaltered and free of further corrosion products. In the case of molds the daguerreotype should be re-packaged with modern glass and an unbuffered board to provide a low alkaline environment. The most important measure that can be taken to prevent mold growth is to maintain a constant relative humidity in the storage environment, as to avoid temperature change within the glass encasement.

Ensuring there are proper cleaning and storage conditions for daguerreotypes is vital in their longevity. It is thanks to the delicate microstructure of the daguerreotype image that one can marvel in its extreme rendering of detail, but it is also the microstructure that requires stable conditions to maintain the particle composition that provides such detail. It is evident that the evolution of the daguerreotype is strongly based in the areas defined above. The historical context that surrounds the daguerreotype at the time if its inception is key to its dissemination throughout the Western world.

The predecessors to Daguerre’s invention are vital in photography’s history, as they too play an important role in the development of the science of light and optics, as well as the progression towards the understanding of photochemistry. Daguerre’s partnership with Niepce is also essential in the daguerreotype’s invention. Without Niepce, Daguerre would not have the image support of metal or basic chemistry that builds the skeleton of his process. Historical context, therefore, is crucial in understanding Daguerre’s invention, and why he is considered the creator of photography.

The social and cultural implications of the daguerreotype flourished in America. Understanding that the social and political structure of America in the latter half of the nineteenth century was based in reform provides a cultural context as to why the daguerreotype proliferated there. The portrait daguerreotype took-over from the painted miniature, and this can explain the way the daguerreotype was cased. The casings were tactile objects to be shared and treasured, and the detailed decoration provided a status for the sentimental memento, as well as a protective housing. The daguerreotype also thrived within scientific milieus.

The objective truth of the daguerreotype and mechanical nature provided precise and immediate records for many fields of scientific investigation. However, daguerreotypes were also appropriated, because of the nature of the medium, to project an idealistic thought of power. Looking at the microstructure of daguerreotype particles can help one to understand preservation and conservation issues. Being able to preserve these unique one-of-a-kind images is clearly beneficial due to the vast amount of information they hold as historical objects. The daguerreotype also provides the first piece of the photographic puzzle.

Although the daguerreotype only prospered from 1840–1860 before being replaced by the reproducible and relatively more portable wet-collodion process, the social and cultural implications of the daguerreotype era are great. The facets of the daguerreotype’s inextricable structure of historical, social and physical elements bind to provide a view starting point for photography’s history. The daguerreotype, inevitably, represents the beginning of a medium. However, the daguerreotype is also a form of photography that no other process can shine a light to in terms of brilliance, detail and mystic.


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The Invention of Photography - The Daguerreotype Essay
Photography has become the catalyst for social and cultural memory and a tool for scientific advancement. The world owes a great deal to the early inventors of the latent image for their patience and skill, for without photography one might consider the world an unmemorable place. The first step in photography’s dissemination into the world came by way of a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre. His process known as the daguerreotype's quickly circulated throughout the Western world, an
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The Invention of Photography - The Daguerreotype Essay
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