Louis Daguerre (1787 – 1851) was a French artist, printmaker and inventor who was best known for the invention of his Daguerreotype of photography. This was a key invention in the development of the modern camera and is widely considered the birth of the modern camera.
“I have seized the light! I have arrested his flight! The sun himself in future shall draw my pictures!”
Louis Daguerre (1835) according to Charles Robert Gibson, in The Romance of Modern Photography: Its Discovery & Achievements (1908)
Daguerre was born on 18 November 1787, Cormeilles-en-Parisis, Val-d’Oise, France. He was apprenticed to a landscape painter and also learnt the skills of architecture and theatre design. He gained employment as an inland revenue officer and a scene painter for the opera.
Using his knowledge of theatre lighting and artistic capacities, one of his earliest inventions was the Diorama – a popular device showing theatrical painting and lighting effects, which was first shown in Paris in 1822. It became a very popular form of entertainment in the mid 1820s with critics marvelling at its magical properties. It proved a good source of income for Daguerre, though his London theatre later burned down in 1839.
Interested in the potential of creating permanent ‘photographs’ in 1829, he formed a partnership with Nicéphore Niépce who had already created a heliograph and the world’s oldest surviving photograph. Together they sought to find a way to capture permanent images on a solid surface using light and chemicals. Niepce died in 1833, and Daguerre initially struggled to raise interest in his work. It took until 1838 when Daguerre felt he had something promising to show other scientists and artists.
He showed his inventions to Francois Arago a member of the French legislature who became an enthusiastic supporter, and he secured financial backing for Daguerre to work on his discoveries full-time. Daguerre and his son were given a pension (6,000 Fr and 4,000 Fr) by the French state in return for giving up the rights to the work. In 1839, the French government offered Daguerre’s invention free to the world complete with working instructions.
On 19 August 1839, Daguerre demonstrated his revolutionary work at a joint session of Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Daguerre demonstrated how a photographic image could be imprinted on a silver-plated sheet of copper exposed in a large camera box with the help of vapour given off by iodine crystals. The plate was then developed in mercury fumes at around 75 degrees Celsius. Finally, the image was stabilised ‘fixed’ with salt water – this was to prevent further change. The early daguerreotypes had to be sealed in glass to prevent damage. The image on the polished metal also depended on the angle of lighting and reflections.
A key discovery of Daguerre was that an initial seemingly ‘feint’ image could later be chemically developed into a fully formed image. As photographic historian Robert Leggat stated that Daguerre found this discovery by accident (in 1835).
“Louis Daguerre made an important discovery by accident. In 1835, he put an exposed plate in his chemical cupboard, and some days later found, to his surprise, that the latent image had developed. Daguerre eventually concluded that this was due to the presence of mercury vapour from a broken thermometer. This important discovery that a latent image could be developed made it possible to reduce the exposure time from some eight hours to thirty minutes.” (link)
This meant that a much shorter time was needed for the initial exposure. Rather than the several hours required for the light to imprint the plate, it was now a matter of minutes before the ‘latent’ negative image could be developed into a fully formed image.
The results left a powerful impression on the audience who saw this new art in a miraculous light.
Daguerre was quick to suggest and innovate with the potential of this new medium. He created images of dead spiders, showing how the image could be useful to science, wishing to study anatomy. But, at the other spectrum, he created artistic images, showing how his photography could capture light and shadows in a revealing way. He developed both microscopic and telescopic versions enabling him to photograph both small, close objects and far away objects like the moon.
Tragically on 8 March 1839 – on the same day he was meeting with Samuel Morse – the Daguerre’s laboratory burned to the ground destroying his early experimental works and his written works. However, after a slow start, his invention became a widespread commercial success – despite the many technical limitations, millions of daguerreotypes were produced.
Importance of Daguerre’s invention
The photograph developments of Daguerre changed many aspects of life we take for granted. It enabled news media to take actual photographs of current events. One of the first major uses of the Daguerreotypes was photographing scenes from the American Civil War. The first photograph of Abraham Lincoln was made from the Daguerre technique. Later, the first photographs of the Crimean war helped to bring up the actual devastation of war to people back home. The camera also gave ordinary people the opportunity to capture the exact likeness of their loved ones. Previously only the very rich had been able to afford a portrait painter. The still photography also led inevitably to a video camera and the ability to capture moving images.
Future work on the camera
When news of Daguerre’s discoveries reached Henry Fox Talbot in England, it stimulated Talbot to resume his research which had been left for several years. Talbot had researched along different lines of research; he had worked on producing sensitive paper impregnated with silver chloride. In 1841, he produced calotype – a paper negative process which like Daguerre made use of a latent image (negative) before developing into the finished image. Talbot’s method could also have more than one image produced. It was seen as competition to the Daguerre process – especially in Great Britain, which uniquely in the world there was a patent and exception to the French government’s free offer of the technology.
Over the next few years, several developments speeded up the quality of cameras. Additional chemicals reduced exposure time to a few seconds enabling portraits to become possible — Petzval portrait lens.
Frederick Scott Archer’s “Collodion process—images required only two or three seconds of light exposure” and motion photography became a reality.
However, the daguerreotype and its successful demonstration was a key turning point in stimulating further research into improving the process.
Daguerre wrote Historique et description des procédés du daguerréotype et du diorama (Paris, 1839), his memoir, and Nouveau moyen de préparer la couche sensible des plaques destinées à recevoir les images photographiques
He was appointed an officer of the Legion of Honour and was one of 72 names enscribed on the Eiffel Tower.
Louis Daguerre and the Story of the Daguerreotype
- Louis Daguerre and the Story of the Daguerreotype at Amazon.com
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