Louis Daguerre - Biography and Legacy
French Photographic Pioneer, Physicist, Scenic Painter and Printmaker
Biography of Louis Daguerre
Childhood and Education
Born in 1787, in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, France, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was raised in a well-to-do middle-class family. Louis's father was a committed royalist and, despite the onset of the French Revolution, he even named one of his daughters after France's condemned last queen, Marie Antoinette. The country's political upheaval meant that Daguerre's schooling was littered with interruptions. He managed to develop his talent for drawing however, and aged 13 Daguerre became apprenticed to an architect (it is also thought that he worked in some capacity as an inland revenue official during the same period).
At the age of 16 Daguerre moved to Paris where he studied and practiced panoramic painting for operatic productions under I. E. M. Degotti at the Paris Opéra. Before long, Daguerre had graduated to lighting director for several Parisian theaters. Daguerre also gained notice for his dancing skills and worked as a stage extra at the Opéra. But it was as an artist for theatrical scenery that he truly excelled. He earned a reputation for atmospheric landscapes and night effects which he demonstrated to novel effect in prestige productions such as Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.
In the spring of 1821, Daguerre and the French panorama painter Charles Marie Bouton had come together to invent the diorama theater. The diorama was billed as a "scenographic entertainment" that took place in a specially designed theater. Accommodating as many as 350 patrons at a time, audiences would view translucent landscapes and architectural views, hand painted on linen, and brought to life by deep perspective and crepuscular lighting effects. Color filters were employed in such a way as to simulate movement. The spectacle was also enlivened with sound effects, stage props and sometimes even through the placement human figures. The diorama was a public and critical success with audiences willing to accept the illusion that they were viewing living scenery. Though some commentators have cited the diorama as an early forerunner of cinema, diorama productions lacked any kind of narrative impetus which allowed instead for feelings of romantic contemplation amongst its audiences.
Most patrons would stand (though there was limited seating) for a show that ran between 10 to 15 minutes before the image would rotate, on a huge floored turntable, to reveal a second painting of similar dimensions (some later dioramas even featured a third painting). Daguerre opened the diorama theater in Paris in 1822 and his second theater opened in London's Regent's Park in the fall of 1823. After a decade or so of success, Daguerre ran into financial difficulties. Dioramas were costly to produce, their novelty was on the wane, and an outbreak of cholera in Paris crippled ticket sales in the French capital. By the mid-1830s Daguerre faced commercial ruin.
Daguerre had been closely following scientific developments in photography since the late 1820s. He was looking for a way of incorporating mechanically produced images into his diorama system (Bouton had abandoned his involvement with the diorama and Daguerre saw photography as a potential means of replacing him). He had made the personal and professional acquaintance of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce who, in 1826, had created the world's first photograph through his heliographic process. The heliographic technique used a photograved plate method to fix an image (through a camera obscura) and from which one could then take multiple prints. The primitive heliographic process required excessively long exposures and developing time and lacked fine picture quality. This led the two men to develop a more advanced method which they called the physautotype. The physautotype, which they unveiled in 1832, involved covering a polished plate with an alcohol and lavender oil resin solution which was then exposed to sunlight and developed in the fumes of turpentine. The final results proved to be somewhat erratic, however; often producing distracting positive/negative effects.
Niépce died in 1833 but Daguerre pushed ahead with their earlier experiments and in 1835 Daguerre made his breakthrough. Having placed a highly polished, mirror-like, silver coated copper plate (exposed through a camera obscura device) in a lightproof chemical cupboard, he removed the plate 20-30 minutes later to find that the image had developed. Having examined the cupboard he noticed that it housed a broken thermometer and that the mercury vapor must have allowed the image to develop. Daguerre had still not solved the puzzle of how to fix a permanent image, however. The fixing process was only achieved when he realized that he could remove the silver iodide from the copper plate with a simple sodium thiosulfate (salt based) solution. Daguerre had advanced Niépce's initial process -- to justify naming as a new process, the daguerreotype (he reduced exposure times from fifteen to three minutes and developing time to thirty minutes). It would prove to be the first commercially viable form of photography.
Although daguerreotypes predated the negative sheet, they could be copied by a process of "redaguerreotyping" the original plate. Copies of originals were also produced through lithography and engraving while painted portraits based upon daguerreotypes began to appear in popular publications. The first daguerreotype cameras, meanwhile, were custom made by opticians, instrument makers and even by the photographers themselves. The most popular style of camera was a sliding-box device with the lens positioned in the front of the box. A second, smaller box was placed in the back of the larger box while focus was achieved by sliding the rear box backwards or forwards. This process produced a reversed image (though some more sophisticated cameras were fitted with a mirror to correct the reversal). It was only when the sensitized plate - which could vary in size: whole, half, quarter, sixth, ninth, sixteenth - was placed in the camera that the lens cap would be removed and the exposure achieved.
Daguerre formally presented his invention to the Académie des Sciences on January 9, 1839. His work made such an impression many eminent scientists of the day travelled to Daguerre's studio to see demonstrations. The American inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse, was moved to comment on the daguerreotype's picture detail: its "exquisite minuteness of [...] delineation" as he put it. On January 9, 1839 a full account of the daguerreotype was presented to the Académie by the eminent astrologer and physicist François Arago. Daguerre's patent was acquired by the State, and, on August 19, 1839, the French Government announced that the daguerreotype would be offered as a gift "Free to the World". Daguerre himself had registered the patent for England one week earlier (August 12) and thereby stalling the development of daguerreotype photography there (Antoine Claudet, a student of Daguerre's, was amongst the very few people licensed to take daguerreotypes there).
Once the daguerreotype had been licensed in Britain, a new, somewhat macabre, genre emerged. The so-called "post-mortem" daguerreotype became popular in Britain (and in America) and was seen by many Victorians as a way to filling a yearning for commemoration, remembrance and spirituality. The daguerreotype allowed parents and relatives to possess affordable "spectral", or "post-mortem", photographs which captured intimate images of deceased - loved ones (usually children amongst whom mortality rates were highest). Daguerreotypist were sometimes even instructed to ensure that the bodies' eyes were opened, or else, eyes might be painted onto closed eyelids, to give the illusion that the corpse was still living.
In honor of his invention, the French government paid Daguerre an annual stipend of 6,000 francs which he lived off with the insurance payment he received from a blaze that destroyed his theater in 1839. The heir of Niépce's estate, Isidore Niépce, was also granted an annuity of 4,000 francs by the State. Daguerre was awarded the French Legion of Honor in recognition of his achievement and was made Honorary Academician at the National Academy of Design in the same year. Daguerre was described as a shy and modest speaker but he offered demonstrations and classes, and even published a brochure on the mechanics of his invention. A company was created to manufacture the equipment for making daguerreotypes, with a share of the profits going to both Daguerre and Isidore Niépce. But as the daguerreotype grew in popularity around the world, it came down to others to advance Daguerre's original design.
Having effectively retired, Daguerre returned to his first passion and spent the last decade of his life painting diorama-like tableaus for local churches in and around the Paris suburb of Bry-sur-Marne. He died there of a heart attack on July 10, 1851, aged 63.
The Legacy of Louis Daguerre
Although millions of daguerreotypes were produced worldwide, Daguerre's system had become all-but obsolete by the mid 1850s. William Fox-Talbot's "sensitive paper" based calotype process had emerged as its chief rival during the 1840s and the latter's faculty for duplication finally won out over the vastly superior picture quality of Daguerre's invention. But by then the Frenchman had already put his indelible stamp on the age of modernity. By the dawning of the twentieth century, photography had become so commonplace almost anyone could make their own pictures and create their own personal histories. Meanwhile, the Frenchman's invention provided the template for an underlying aspect of the modern age: the documentation and recording of things and peoples as part of a larger social project of classification and ordering.
Daguerre saw his invention first and foremost as a scientific development. Indeed, when the Eiffel Tower was built in the late 1880s, his name was inscribed on its base next to those of 71 other influential French scientists and inventors. The daguerreotype lent support to advances in medicine, astronomy, anthropology and archaeology. Yet its impact upon the development of the visual arts proved most profound. Liberated from the necessity to record the world literally, artists entered a modern period defined by an unprecedented level of formal experimentation. As for the history of art photography, then one need look no further than the Straight Photography of Paul Strand, the collective efforts of Group f/64, the portraiture of August Sander, and the industrial recordings of Bernd and Hilla Becher, to find a direct lineage back to the model of the daguerreotype.