Daguerre

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre


18.11.1787 – 10.07.1851, Scene-Painter and Inventor of Photography

Daguerre was already famous because of his very special theater-panoramas. He painted not only a simple backdrop but made astonishing dioramas by painting both sides of the screen with the same subject but different attitudes. So it depends on the light how it looks like – i.e. a building by daylight and by night, just by changing the illumination from front to rear. Also some kinds of movement illusions could be reached by this technique. This art was so success-ful that he could install his own Diorama-Theatre in Paris, together with his colleague Charles Marie Bouton. Soon they opened a second one in London. To get almost perfect painted pictu-res he used the camera obscura like many other painters as optical drawing-aid. From this practice emerged the wish to fix the pictures on the screen directly without laborios drawing. Beside the camera obscura as optical item some light sensitive substances were already known at his time but there was no way to combine these with success.


At the Quai d'Horloge next to Notre Dame there was the workshop of Charles Chevalier, who was well-known for best lenses to the camera obscura. His communication conduced towards the meeting of Daguerre and Nièpce. Both searched for the same invention and bought their lenses at Chevalier's. In 1826 they signed a cooperation-contract that includes an interacting exchange of knowledge and results of their research. Daguerre followed the path of Johann Heinrich Schulze who discovered in 1717 the light-sensivity of silver-salts, but their aversion to light was not enough to form a picture in the camera. Nièpce tried a complete different way with light-sensitive resins to get a printing plate, he had experience with lithography before.

After having achieved a reliable way of taking pictures Daguerre approa-ched the Academie des Sciences who gave it to their physicist Francois Arago. Arago realized the greatness of this invention but also the inven-tor's dilemma: a patent claim could hardly be enforced after publishing. So he obtained the purchase of this invention by the government of France who then gave it as a present to the whole world – except Great Britain. This was announced at the 19th of August 1839, which nowa-days is regarded as the date of birth of photography. The 6,000 Francs that Daguerre get annually as life-annuity as payment was not so much – a contemporary commentator critized that the feeding of the apes in the zoo at Paris costs more than this great inventor gets.

The key to success finally was the discovery of a latent image that can be developed to a visible picture. Actually there is a complete picture on the photosensitiv layer after a short time of exposure but this is just latent, invisible, existing only on form of chemical alteration of the silver-salt-layer. By using a chemical development one can make this picture visible. All analog procedures uses this basic mechanism. By this means originated also the here shown picture that Daguerre made himself from a rooflight of his house in Paris. It is coinciden-tally the first photograph of a man because he stood long enough at the shoeshine-boy to be figured out instead of the still rather long exposure time.

But Daguerre was business-minded enough to compensate this lack of money-reward. There were emoluments from the use of his invention in Great Britain but mainly earnings from the direct merchandising. In Cooperation with his brother-in-law Alphonse Giroux, who was a famous art- restorer and cabinet-maker as well as with the optician Charles Chevalier he started the production of the world's first commercially made photo-camera (the picture here shows a 1:1 replica). Each one was given a sealed badge to attest the authenticity.


In fact the Daguerreotype is the invention that spreads more rapidly around the world than any other novelty. The excitement about there pictures, „drawn by the sun itself“ was just enthusiastic in spite of having significant disadvan-tages, too. The Daguerrotypes (photographs named after their inventor) have a fineness as no other kind of photography up till today and they are completely without any grain. On the other hand it is a very dangerous proceeding: silver-plated copper plates become lightsensitive by vapour of iodine and get develo-ped over vapour of quicksilver, which is a deadly poison that killed many pho-tographers of the early years. Until discovering the toxicity of quicksilver me-dical doctors named this as the “photographers disease“. But there are also other handicaps: each picture is a unique item, if you want to have more than one, you are to take as much shots as you would like to have – but every shot is rather expensive, it costs about 3 Thaler (5 Thaler made one Louisdor or 2 Du-cats), a better payed cigar-worker earned 2 Thaler a week this time. Then the pictures look as well as a positive or as a negativ, depending on the angle of viewing and they are reversed if not taken with a mirror. The surface is extre-mely damageable by any touching so that this pictures were delivered in so-called Union-Cases to protect them with a glass-plate. These cases protects the Daguerreotypes also against air influence what is extremely important because the silvery plates would tarnish like other silver but they can't be polished without distroying the picture. At least by all this a real Daguerreotyp could easily be distinguished from the later Ambrotypes that are delivered in Union Cases, too.

Since 1851 the daguerrerian kind of photography vanished as fast as it spread before. Frederic Scott Archer succeeded with an important improvement of the Kalotype, another photographic proceeding, invented by William Henry Fox Talbot. Archer achieved the fixing of the photosensitiv layer on glass-plates instead of just paper so that the negativ-prints became good detailed, sharp and better storable than the former paper-negatives. This principle defines analogue photography till today – you can have as many copies as you'll like, it is very much cheaper and not in the least as dangerous in handling as the Daguerreotype.


Here you find the instruction-manual written by Daguerre in 1839 – just sorry because it's only the german translation.

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german text-version


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