Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made the first photographic image in 1826 or 1827. He worked together with Louis Daguerre to improve his process. After Niépce’s sudden death in 1833, Daguerre continued to work on the development that would eventually lead to the invention of photography in 1839. He named the process daguerreotype.
A daguerreotype consists of polished silver that is applied to a copper plate. The silver becomes light sensitive by treatment with iodine fumes, which produces silver iodide. After the plate was exposed in the camera, the image was developed by treatment of heated mercury fumes[1-p.27]. The developed plate resulted in a positive image. There was no negative which could be used to reproduce the image. Each daguerreotype is therefore unique.
The French government acquired the rights from Daguerre and presented the process “free to the world” as a gift in 1839. Every photographer could now produce daguerreotypes and the process became very popular from 1840 to 1860, after it was replaced by the wet collodion process.
The first daguerreotypes required long exposure times and were only suitable for still lifes. The process was optimized by using other chemicals, such as bromine and chlorine fumes, allowing shorter exposure times[1-p.28]. Also the invention of the fast Petzval lens contributed to shorter exposure times. The daguerreotype process could now be used for making portraits.
It was a major invention, but not everybody was immediately pleased by the results. The image was in black and white and could therefore not compete with the colourful paintings of the time. Daguerreotypes were sometimes hand tinted with colours to satisfy customers. Colouring of stereo daguerreotypes required skillful artists because both images had to be coloured the same way in order not to reduce the stereo effect.
Viewing a daguerreotype or stereo daguerreotype is somewhat challenging. The image is on a mirror-like silver surface and will appear either positive or negative, depending on the angle at which it’s viewed, how it’s lit and whether a light or dark background is being reflected in the metal. The darkest areas of the image are simply bare silver and the lighter areas have a fine light-scattering texture. This is clearly illustrated by this 3D simulation from The John Rylands Research Institute and Library. Special daguerreotype viewers were developed to enhance the viewing experience.
- Lavédrine, Betrand. Photographs of the Past – Process and Preservation, 2009