Daguerreotypes

I have been trying to find out more about 19th Century photographic processes. This is mostly due to a brief mention of Daguerreotypes in Joel Anderson’s book Theatre & Photography.

The Daguerreotype process was invented by Louis Daguerre in the 1830s and was officially announced to the public in 1839 and became the first commercially successful photographic process. The Daguerreotype was made by polishing a plate of silver plated copper, treating it with light sensitive fumes, exposing the plate to light in a Camera Obscura and developing the latent image by exposing the plate to mercury vapour. Interestingly, the Daguerreotype could not be endlessly reproduced (in the way that a photograph can be) as the plate that was exposed in the camera is the same object that is developed and displayed.

Louis_Daguerre_2

A Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre from 1844

Viewing a Daguerreotype is said to be unlike viewing a photograph. Firstly the mirrored surface of the polished silver allow for both a positive and negative image, depending on which angle the viewer looks at the image (much like a hologram). This also means that sometimes the viewer may catch a glimpse of themselves in the reflection of the image. Secondly, as the image is formed on the silver halide coating (rather than on the metal itself) the image appears to be floating above the surface, and therefore Daguerreotype portraits have a ghost-like quality – an apparition in space.

Another interesting aspect of the Daguerreotype relates to the long exposure time necessary to capture the image (which could be anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes). In Theatre & Photography Anderson refers to one of Brecht’s articles on apparatuses: ‘The Threepenny Lawsuit’ from 1932. Brecht argues that photography is an example of a technology that has declined in its advancement, arguing that 20th century photography produces worse ‘likenesses’ than the 19th Century Daguerreotype. According to Brecht, the Daguerreotype is a truer likeness. Due to its long exposure time, it captures more than one expression of the subject. A face as it changes over time.

Anderson comments that “it is as if, for Brecht, a good photographic image would be a composite of images, and would materially contain the trace of movement” (Anderson 2014: 83). The notion that a Daguerreotype might trace a movement over time brings it into a closer relationship with performance than more recent photographic technologies. Elsewhere, I have written about the act of viewing a performance as an extended version of the click of the shutter. Perhaps the technological restrictions of the Daguerreotype process literally enables this extension of time in order to capture a composite image (in the way that a performance might be captured in the memory of an audience member).

Reading about this process also makes me think of the Daguerreotype as the Barthesian photograph par excellence. In Camera Lucida Barthes repeatedly highlights the ghost-like qualities of the photographed subject, and favours photographs that appear to show a person’s true essence or unique being. I find these terms deeply problematic and yet I find myself looking for something similar in the photographs of my own family.

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2 comments

  1. The current Victorian Sensation exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland has a massive collection of Daguerreotypes on display and, if I remember correctly, one of the clamps photographers used to keep their sitters from moving too much during long exposures. Might be worth a look if you’ve not been already – http://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/whats-on/photography-a-victorian-sensation/

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  2. Thanks Catherine! Funnily enough I was through in Edinburgh last Thursday and went to that exhibition. Loved it and what a collection of Daguerreotypes! H

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