My father has a room in our house that serves the exclusive purpose of housing his antique collection. Recently I was meandering through the room on a visit home, absorbing the familiar musty smell and grainy wood surfaces, when I came across a small piece of glass framed by delicate gold inside a paper envelope. At a certain angle the glass reflected a portrait of a man and a woman. The image was eerie, translucent, and intricately lifelike, as if the two were ghosts that might blink. The object was a daguerreotype, the first photograph. My inner Sherlock Holmes kicked into gear, and unearthed some surprising modern takes on this old technology.
My Daguerreotype Boyfriend is a blog featuring Victorian hunks, offering both eye candy and an intriguing look into photography’s history. Just as I came across the object by accident so did its inventor Louis Daguerre, a French painter. He discovered the development process when he noticed an image in his storage cabinet had developed when exposed to mercury vapors from a broken thermometer. He improved upon the process, using a sheet of copper plated with a thin coat of silver that was polished until mirror-like, then sensitized with iodine, then transferred to the camera in a lightproof box. The plate was then exposed to light, developed over hot mercury, and fixed with a salt solution. Because the image rubbed off easily it was protected by a sheet of glass and stored in an envelope or box. This process was time-consuming, yet the outcome was worthwhile.
There is a lot of literature and discussion on the daguerreotype out there, which I found interesting because I assumed the process was forgotten in today’s digitized world. But the popularity of photo “destroying” apps like Instagram shows that retro is in. Daguerreotypes attract bidding wars on eBay, and invite discussions across the Blogosphere. This discovery led me to believe that the original spirit and aura of photography is still alive. While photography’s use has certainly evolved (cat videos, anyone?) the core purpose of self-expression and recordkeeping still resounds. Since the first cave paintings, humans have desired to record their histories in order to pass down wisdom and preserve their legacies. With the invention of photography, everyone could record their family histories with the accuracy and permanency that only the wealthy could previously afford to do. We nostalgically keep the daguerreotype alive because it reminds us of photography’s original sacred value - a process that gave the magic of lifelike representation, of preserving our precious moments – to everyone. The swoons are just an added bonus.
Check out the Archives of American Art’s awesome daguerreotype portrait collection.
Experience 3-D Stereo view photographs and daguerreotypes at the Smithsonian Castle’s Experience Civil War Photography exhibit.