Biography of Louis Daguerre

Inventor of the First Practical Process of Photography

Photo Shoot On December 17Th 1959
Keystone-France/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

Louis Daguerre (Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre) was born near Paris, France, on November 18, 1789. A professional scene painter for the opera with an interest in lighting effects, Daguerre began experimenting with the effects of light upon translucent paintings in the 1820s. He became known as one of the fathers of photography.

Partnership with Joseph Niepce

Daguerre regularly used a camera obscura as an aid to painting in perspective, and this led him to think about ways to keep the image still. In 1826, he discovered the work of Joseph Niepce, and in 1829 began a partnership with him.

He formed a partnership with Joseph Niepce to improve upon the photography process Niepce had invented. Niepce, who died in 1833, produced the first photographic image, however, Niepce's photographs quickly faded.


After several years of experimentation, Daguerre developed a more convenient and effective method of photography, naming it after himself - the daguerreotype.

According to writer Robert Leggat,"Louis Daguerre made an important discovery by accident. In 1835, he put an exposed plate in his chemical cupboard, and some days later found, to his surprise, that the latent image had developed. Daguerre eventually concluded that this was due to the presence of mercury vapour from a broken thermometer. This important discovery that a latent image could be developed made it possible to reduce the exposure time from some eight hours to thirty minutes.

Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process to the public on August 19, 1839, at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris.

In 1839, Daguerre and Niépce's son sold the rights for the daguerreotype to the French government and published a booklet describing the process.

Diorama theatres

In the spring of 1821, Daguerre partnered with Charles Bouton to create a diorama theatre. Bouton was a more experienced painter but Bouton eventually bowed out of the project, and Daguerre acquired sole responsibility of the diorama theatre.

The first diorama theatre was built in Paris, next to Daguerre's studio. The first exhibit opened in July 1822 showing two tableaux, one by Daguerre and one by Bouton. This would become a pattern. Each exhibition would typically have two tableaux, one each by Daguerre and Bouton. Also, one would be an interior depiction, and the other would be a landscape.

The diorama theatres were huge - about 70 feet wide and 45 feet tall. The canvass paintings were vivid and detailed pictures, and were lit from different angles. As the lights changed, the scene would transform. 

Diorama became a popular new medium, and imitators arose. Another diorama theatre opened in London, taking only four months to build. It opened in September 1823. 

American photographers quickly capitalized on this new invention, which was capable of capturing a "truthful likeness." Daguerreotypists in major cities invited celebrities and political figures to their studios in the hopes of obtaining a likeness for display in their windows and reception areas. They encouraged the public to visit their galleries, which were like museums, in the hope that they would desire to be photographed as well. By 1850, there were over 70 daguerreotype studios in New York City alone.

Robert Cornelius' 1839 self-portrait is the earliest extant American photographic portrait. Working outdoors to take advantage of the light, Cornelius (1809-1893) stood before his camera in the yard behind his family's lamp and chandelier store in Philadelphia, hair askew and arms folded across his chest, and looked off into the distance as if trying to imagine what his portrait would look like.

Early studio daguerreotypes required long exposure times, ranging from three to fifteen minutes, making the process highly impractical for portraiture. After Cornelius and his silent partner, Dr. Paul Beck Goddard, opened a daguerreotype studio in Philadelphia about May 1840, their improvements to the daguerreotype process enabled them to make portraits in a matter of seconds. Cornelius operated his studio for two and a half years before returning to work for his family's thriving gas light fixture business.

Considered a democratic medium, photography provided the middle class with an opportunity to attain affordable portraits.

Popularity of the daguerreotype declined in the late 1850s when the ambrotype, a faster and less expensive photographic process, became available. A few contemporary photographers have revived the process.

Continue > The Daguerreotype Process, Camera & Plates

The daguerreotype is a direct-positive process, creating a highly detailed image on a sheet of copper plated with a thin coat of silver without the use of a negative. The process required great care. The silver-plated copper plate had first to be cleaned and polished until the surface looked like a mirror. Next, the plate was sensitized in a closed box over iodine until it took on a yellow-rose appearance. The plate, held in a lightproof holder, was then transferred to the camera. After exposure to light, the plate was developed over hot mercury until an image appeared. To fix the image, the plate was immersed in a solution of sodium thiosulfate or salt and then toned with gold chloride.

Exposure times for the earliest daguerreotypes ranged from three to fifteen minutes, making the process nearly impractical for portraiture. Modifications to the sensitization process coupled with the improvement of photographic lenses soon reduced the exposure time to less than a minute.

Although daguerreotypes are unique images, they could be copied by redaguerreotyping the original. Copies were also produced by lithography or engraving. Portraits based upon daguerreotypes appeared in popular periodicals and in books. James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald, posed for his daguerreotype at Brady's studio. An engraving, based on this daguerreotype later appeared in the Democratic Review.

The Cameras

Daguerreotype Plate Sizes

  • Whole plate 6-1/2" x 8-1/2"
  • Half plate 4-1/4" x 5-1/2"
  • Quarter plate 3-1/4" x 4-1/4"
  • Sixth plate 2-3/4" x 3-1/4"
  • Ninth plate 2" x 2-1/2"
  • Sixteenth plate 1-3/8" x 1-5/8"