Biography of Louis Daguerre, Inventor of Daguerreotype Photography

Louis Daguerre

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Louis Daguerre (November 18, 1787–July 10, 1851) was the inventor of the daguerreotype, the first form of modern photography. 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.

Fast Facts: Louis Daguerre

  • Known For: Inventor of modern photography (the daguerreotype)
  • Also Known As: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre
  • Born: November 18, 1787 in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, Val-d'Oise, France
  • Parents: Louis Jacques Daguerre, Anne Antoinette Hauterre
  • Died: July 10, 1851 in Bry-sur-Marne, France
  • Education: Apprenticed to Pierre Prévost, the first French panorama painter
  • Awards and Honors: Appointed an officer of the Legion of Honour; assigned an annuity in return for his photographic process.
  • Spouse: Louise Georgina Arrow-Smith
  • Notable Quote: "The daguerreotype is not merely an instrument which serves to draw Nature; on the contrary, it is a chemical and physical process which gives her the power to reproduce herself."

Early Life

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre was born in 1787 in the small town of Cormeilles-en-Parisis, and his family then moved to Orléans. While his parents were not wealthy, they did recognize their son's artistic talent. As a result, he was able to travel to Paris and study with the panorama painter Pierre Prévost. Panoramas were vast, curved paintings intended for use in theaters.

Diorama Theatres

In the spring of 1821, Daguerre partnered with Charles Bouton to create a diorama theatre. Bouton was a more experienced painter but he eventually bowed out of the project, so 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 by each artist. Also, one would be an interior depiction and the other would be a landscape.

The diorama was staged in a round room 12 meters in diameter that could seat up to 350 people. The room rotated, presenting a huge translucent screen painted on both sides. The presentation used special lighting to make the screen transparent or opaque. Additional panels were added to create tableaux with effects that could include thick fog, bright sun, and other conditions. Each show lasted about 15 minutes. The stage would then be rotated to present a second, completely different show.

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

Partnership With Joseph Niépce

Daguerre regularly used a camera obscura as an aid to painting in perspective, which led him to think about ways to keep the image still. In 1826 he discovered the work of Joseph Niépce, who was working on a technique for stabilizing images captured with the camera obscura.

In 1832, Daguerre and Niépce used a photosensitive agent based on lavender oil. The process was successful: they were able to obtain stable images in under eight hours. The process was called Physautotype.

Daguerreotype

After Niépce's death, Daguerre continued his experiments with the goal of developing a more convenient and effective method of photography. A fortunate accident resulted in his discovery that mercury vapor from a broken thermometer could speed the development of a latent image from eight hours to just 30 minutes.

Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process to the public on August 19, 1839, at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. Later that year, Daguerre and Niépce's son sold the rights for the daguerreotype to the French government and published a booklet describing the process.

The Daguerreotype Process, Camera and 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 to first 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 3-15 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 re-daguerreotyping 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.

Daguerreotypes in America

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 more than 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.

Cornelius and his silent partner Dr. Paul Beck Goddard opened a daguerreotype studio in Philadelphia around May 1840 and made improvements to the daguerreotype process that enabled them to make portraits in a matter of seconds, rather than the three- to 15-minute window. Cornelius operated his studio for two and a half years before returning to work for his family's thriving gas light fixture business.

Death

Toward the end of his life, Daguerre returned to the Paris suburb of Bry-sur-Marne and resumed painting dioramas for churches. He died in the city at age 63 on July 10, 1851.

Legacy

Daguerre is often described as the father of modern photography, a major contribution to contemporary culture. Considered a democratic medium, photography provided the middle class with an opportunity to attain affordable portraits. The 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.

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