Everything you need to know about daguerreotypes

Written by Simone | 15th August 2019

One would think early technology wouldn’t produce the highest-quality results, yet looking at the first photographic technique, pictures are incredibly sharp and detailed. What exactly is this process and what makes photographs shot this way so intriguing? Photography expert Daniel Heikens explains.

Hi Daniel. Could you tell us what a daguerreotype is, exactly? 

Daniel: The daguerreotype was the first photographic process. An invention attributed to Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, but something he couldn’t achieve without Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who invented the first photomechanical process. 

Although the earlier technique of the camera obscura, which is essentially a natural phenomenon in order to create a projection, has been around for centuries and can be traced back to ancient China; the first actual photomechanical print, the heliogravure, was created only in 1826 (or 1827, there is no common agreement on the actual date). 

It was called View from the Window at Le Gras by amateur inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. With this heliographic technique, he finally captured an image on the print, but the exposure time was several days, which made it impossible to get a sharp image, let alone anything that moves. 

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a professional scene painter for the theatre, was interested in creating an image of the real world and thought he could do so by reducing the exposure time, so he sought out Niépce and started a correspondence. Niépce, however, was focused more on producing reproducible plates.

Building on Niépce’s knowledge, Daguerre finally found the solution and publicly announced his commercially viable photographic process in 1839. This technique only required minutes of exposure in the camera and produced clear and detailed results. 

This famous portrait of poet and writer Edgar Allen Poe is a daguerreotype, although this version has been retouched.

And how does the technique work?

Daniel: It’s quite a complex process. First, a sheet of silver-plated copper needed to be polished to the point where it looked like a mirror. That was treated with fumes to make its surface light-sensitive, so it could be exposed in a camera for as long as was judged to be necessary, depending on the intensity of the light. The resulting latent image could then be made visible by fuming it with mercury vapour and its sensitivity to light was removed by liquid chemical treatment.

The surface of the mirror-like photograph was (and will remain) very delicate, and even the slightest wiping could permanently damage it, so after rinsed and dried, the photograph was sealed behind glass in a protective enclosure. 

What makes this such an interesting form of photography?

Daniel: It’s still one of the most beautiful processes ever invented. Although the images are often small in size, they are incredibly sharp with beautiful tones and contrasts. The making of a daguerreotype was⁠—and still is⁠—an astonishingly meticulous and time-consuming job. And a daguerreotype is always unique because what you see comes directly from the camera; there’s always only one.  

How can you recognise daguerreotypes?

Daniel: The most noticeable characteristic of a daguerreotype is the mirror effect. If you skew the photograph in certain angles, you can see how the picture mirrors, and you can even see the ‘negative image’.

[Daguerreotypes] always come in protective cases, often made of leather and lined with silk or velvet. They are also sometimes protected by so-called ‘Union Cases’: a composite, plastic-like, case made from sawdust and shellac. Exposed to air, the silver plate will tarnish, so it’s pretty common to find signs of tarnishing around the edges of the daguerreotype. And, finally, they’re usually relatively small. 

You can see both the positive and the negative image in a daguerreotype.

Are there any photographers that have become famous working in this process? 

Daniel: That has to be Daguerre, the process carries his name, after all. Daguerreotypes by Daguerre himself are extremely rare and not many have been discovered.

After the process was shared with the public, on 19th August 1839, well-known daguerreotypists like Robert Cornelius, Louis Adolphe de Molard, John William Draper, Antoine Claudet, John B Dancer, Richard Beard, William Kilburn, Platt D Babbitt and many more used this process to create some of the most beautiful preserved daguerreotypes of the 19th century. 

Are there still photographers using this technique?

Daniel: Definitely! Even with this possibly being one of the hardest procedures to execute well. With the rise of fast, digital photography in recent years, there are more and more photographers hungry for ‘slow photography.’ We even have a photographer who sells his daguerreotypes directly on Catawiki. 

Do you have any advice for beginner collectors of daguerreotypes? 

Daniel: Always buy what you like and love. The more you come across daguerreotypes, the more critical you will become regarding condition, subject, casing, size, etc. 

You’ll mostly come across family portraits. Because taking a daguerreotype took a long time⁠—an exposure time of ten minutes was not unheard of in the early days of the process⁠—most daguerreotypes are portraits of sitters trying to sit as still as possible. As soon as your collection grows you will find yourself looking for more rare subjects or very early daguerreotypes. 

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