Continuing on with our theme of the first baby-steps of the craft of photography we are taking a look at the work of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a French artist and physicist. He is perhaps most famous for developing the process we now refer to as the Daguerrotype and being one of the founding fathers of photography (with the other being Nicéphore Niépce).
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Daguerre had partnered with Niépce to further develop the photographic process by helping him to improve the camera obscura (though he later admitted that the camera obscura he helped improve was incapable of producing clear images); after Niépce’s sudden death in 1833, Daguerre got to work in perfecting his own photographic process. By 1835, Daguerre’s experimentation with the materials and process previously developed by Niépce had led to his concentration of creating the latent image (a familiar term to those of us with darkroom training). What he ultimately found, was that there was a latent image on the exposed silver plate, and rather than treat the already visible image with iodine fumes (as Niépce had done), treating the image after exposure with mercury fumes allowed greater control over the final image, and that the development process could be stopped with a simple solution of table salt in hot water.
In the end, Daguerre’s process was really not all that difficult, which to him, was a cause for great concern; he worried that someone would rip off his methods which would ultimately cost him the fame and fortune he so desperately sought.
The basic process for creating a Daguerrotype is as follows: You start with a copper sheet that has been plated with silver, place this plate silver side down inside of a box containing iodine. The iodine fumes will cause a chemical reaction with the silver plating and create silver iodide (a light sensitive material). This plate would then be placed into the camera obscura and then exposed to light; these early methods resulted in exposures that took several minutes (usually 4-5 on average). Once the exposure has been completed, the plate would be put into another box containing mercury fumes (because that’s not dangerous or anything) which caused yet another chemical reaction and developed the latent image embedded within the silver iodide. Once the image was satisfactory, it would be thoroughly washed with a sodium chloride solution to halt the developing process and finally rinsed with regular water to preserve the image.
Upon showing his process for harnessing the power of light to the French Academy of Science in the late 1830s they (the Academy) decided that the process and materials were indeed quite simple and therefore could be replicated easily, and so it was deemed that Daguerre would graciously “give” his invention to the world (via France). Naturally, Daguerre was compensated by the French Government for his contributed to the arts and science.
As the Daguerrotype was shown to the world, a French journalist by the name of H. Gaucheraud writing for the Gazette de France, had said that “the fine detail of the daguerrotype would not substantially challenge drawing and painting, because the appearance of the daguerrotype was much closer to the look of engravings and of mezzotints, a printing process able to produce a greater range of tones than etchings and engravings.” Well, we know how that one turned out. If you’d like to read up on Daguerre and the development of the Daguerrotype, there are a couple books out there: Speculating Daguerre & Photography, A Cultural History.
- Marien, Mary W. “The Invention of “Photographies”" Photography A Cultural History. 2nd ed. London: Laurence King, 2006. 11-15. Print.
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