Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) stares out from a daguerreotype, his degraded picture a testament to the fragility of the photographic medium he helped invent and that came to be named after him. Daguerre's importance as pioneer of photography, though, is indelible—as evidenced by today's Google doodle in celebration of his 224th birthday.
The French painter, printmaker, and theatrical designer announced his revolutionary imaging invention—pictures on silver-plated copper that required "only" minutes-long exposures—to the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1839. Public acclaim followed immediately.
"A number of inventors were working on photographic processes at the same time," said David Haberstich, curator of photography at the National Museum of American History. "But Daguerre's process was the first to be announced and the first to become popularized. Daguerre's concept really caught the imagination of the people."
Though Daguerre's process largely belongs to history, love for his work has never entirely faded. "Daguerreotypes are still collected today and prized for their high quality and silvery appearance," Haberstich said.
"A lot of people have written about the democratization effect that photography had," Haberstich said.
"The daguerreotype sort of began that by making photos available to more and more people," he added. "And portraiture"—as in this circa-1855 British locket—"was the first important area in which photography and in particular the daguerreotype flourished."
Serious and sometimes even stern looks are common portraits using Louis Daguerre's process, but not because our ancestors lacked a sense of humor.
Most people simply chose to present themselves as serious, rather than frivolous, according to fashions of the era, Haberstich explained. A second factor may have been more practical—long exposure times required people to remain absolutely still for up to a minute.
Louis Daguerre's process seemed like magic in 1839, but was in fact the result of long labors begun in the mid 1820s and continued in collaboration with French scientist Joseph Niépce until Niépce's death in 1833. (See the world's first photograph, taken by Niépce.)
Each image—reversed as in a mirror—was captured on a polished sheet of silver-plated copper that had been sensitized with vapors of iodine. The plate was exposed to light via a large, boxy camera and later developed using mercury fumes before being permanently fixed with a saltwater solution.
Though no one realized it at the time, developing daguerreotypes was likely hazardous to the health of its practitioners. "The mercury fumes may have shortened the lives of some of the daguerreotypists," Haberstich said.
Daguerre received a lifetime pension from France for ceding the rights to the process to the French people.
Illustration from Kean Collection/Getty Images
Tools of Daguerre's Trade
The complex tools of Louis Daguerre's trade ensured it would be decades before photography became an everyday hobby.
Daguerreotypists used the buffer (right) to restore a suitable sheen to a silvery plate, such as the one at center. A sensitization box (top) held vapors of iodine and bromine, which were used to treat the plate before exposure. Heated vapors of mercury were used to develop the picture inside the box at left, and a beveller (bottom) put a neat edge on the finished product.
The work may well have been worth the trouble, as daguerreotypes were generally sharper than pictures made with competing, paper-print processes, such as the calotype, pioneered by British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot. But Talbot's method looked far more like photography's future.
"The daguerreotype process itself turned out to be a dead end, because each image was unique," Haberstich said. "With Talbot's process, where you had a negative, you were able to make an unlimited number of prints for that negative."
Daguerreotypes were immediately popular in France and in the United States, where telegraph pioneer Samuel Morse championed the method, which he'd learned from Louis Daguerre himself. The above daguerreotype is one of the earliest ever taken in England, where Daguerre's method was protected by patent and Talbot's process gained ground instead.
The 1839 scene shows London streets eerily empty of humans, a ghostly consequence of daguerreotyping's long exposure times, which stretch to 10 or 20 minutes for such a scene. Typically people didn't stay still long enough to appear in the image and simply vanished.
Unfortunately the same is true for most of the daguerreotypes made by Daguerre himself. His Paris studio burned in March 1839, destroying most of his early pictures and records. Only about 25 original Daguerre images are known to survive today.