Daguerreotype, Defined

For our first Midweek Post, let’s talk about very old photography. Not the oldest, but the one to make photography into a craze.

Simply put, it’s a photograph on a piece of metal that has chemicals that are light sensitive. Those chemicals are desensitized with a complicated chemical reaction. They are often found with a glass and metal front inside of a fabric lined case.

A daguerreotype has many parts, more than what we are used to see today.
A daguerreotype has many parts, more than what we are used to seeing today.

It is a medium that is no longer used with any frequency. This is due to  both the instability of the image and the time required to create such an image. When the method was made public in 1839 it was still very much an experiment, so the images tend to fade more quickly. A person would have to sit still for up to fifteen minutes or the image would blur. Any slight image would ruin the image, so people do not smile. Finally, it would take 20-25 minutes to chemically treat the metal so it could even be used, and up to 10 minutes to develop the image. In the end, it would take roughly an hour to develop a single image. Compared to what we can do today with digital cameras and iPhones, it is a relic.

The history of the method is one of explosion and then replacement. A Frenchman Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre developed the method off of some earlier techniques and tried to sell it by subscription. This failed, and so he made the steps of the process public through the French government. It became widely popular, as a much cheaper alternative to having a commissioned painting done of family or friends. It dominated the market for roughly a decade worldwide, until a photograph based on developing paper took over. It was easier and less expensive to use paper in photography than metal and glass, so it was replaced.

Today, dauguerreotypes are an expensive medium to collect, so you will probably find them in person by asking to visit a museum’s or archives’ collection. Due to their sensitivity, they are often not on display in the galleries.

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