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The Daguerreotype - Photographic Processes Series - Chapter 2 of 12

Photography, a game-changer in history, was invented by Nicephore Niepce using light-sensitive asphalt. His partner, Louis Daguerre, perfected the process, creating the Daguerreotype. This method used a polished silver-coated copper plate, iodide fumes, and mercury to produce images. The Daguerreotype, both a negative and positive image, offered infinite detail and permanence, changing how we remember and see the world.

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Video transcript

I think it’s impossible for us today to imagine what a revelation the first photographs would have been to people. These mirrors with a memory to record things that looked just like what we saw. People’s idea of time changed completely. For the first time you would know what your grandparents looked like even if they died before you were born. To see this process make its place in the lives of ordinary people is to me the most exciting thing about it. It changed everything. In 1814, 1815 you have a man named Nicephore Niepce. What he discovered was asphalt was sensitive to light. He’d paint the solution on a piece of glass and put an engraving on a piece of paper on top of that and where the light shined through and exposed that asphalt it hardened. If you put that piece of glass with the asphalt into a solvent it will remove the areas that weren’t hardened. The earliest photograph we know is on a piece of pewter made by Nicephore Niepce. It’s a view from a window. It’s from the 1820’s and this image made by asphalt still exists. That’s the invention of photography. Niepce knows that he’s onto something and he takes Louis Daguerre on as a partner. Daguerre was well known in Paris in the 1820’s. Well before the 1839 announcement of the Daguerreotype. He was a showman. He ran this 75 foot diorama. Daguerre himself wants to make images. He understands how a camera obscura works. Niepce didn’t have the money, he didn’t have the youth he didn’t have the health. He really kick started Daguerre. When Niepce died Daguerre continued his experiments on his own. By 1839 Daguerre has a system that is fully realized. It’s perfect. It’s a piece of copper coated with silver and you have to polish it very well to the point where you have a polish that when you turn the plate towards a darkened room it looks black. It’s fumed with iodide and when you take it out of the box, it’s yellow. That’s silver iodide. The plate is then placed into a camera obscura. We would say camera now but a camera obscura. Given enough time, it’s exposed. When you take it out of the camera in a darkened room There’s nothing to see on the plate. It’s completely invisible, same yellow coating. but when you put it in another box with a little container of mercury and heat the mercury, the fumes of mercury dance upon the plate and when you withdraw that from the box you have an image. You still have to fix the image. Fixing is a strange term. It basically means you’re preventing the plate from changing any more as light strikes the plate. You place it into a solution that fixes it. Something that we now call hypo. The daguerreotype is then placed into a special case. It’s designed to keep air away from the plate because air is what makes silver tarnish. Daguerre would give the process to the government. The government then would allow anyone in the world to do the daguerreotype except England. So if you wanted to make daguerreotypes in England, you had to pay a fee. This is the Giroux Daguerreotype camera. The world’s first commercially manufactured and sold camera. It’s the camera but it’s also the system that goes with it that you need to sensitize and process the image. It’s essentially an American phenomenon. It was the Americans that embraced it, that used it. It was the Americans that were leaving home and striking out further and further West so that people could have something to think about and to reflect on and to remember them by. We are in the photography vault at George Eastman House. This is where all of our photo collections are stored and here we have our wall of dagurreotypes. We have one of the largest collections of daguerreotypes in the world. Over 3,500 daguerreotypes including 1,500 French daguerreotypes which is the largest collection of French daguerreotypes outside of France. The daguerreotype is both a negative and a positive image at the same time. I think to really see a daguerreotype and get the full effect you have to be holding it. It’s an intimate thing, it’s reflective. Sometimes you do see yourself and that kind of makes you part of the object. With daguerreotypes there’s infinite detail. There’s something just so compelling about a daguerreotype. They’re not made with a negative so that daguerreotype plate was actually in the room with the person being photographed so there’s something of, I read as that person’s energy on the plate. It’s a very permanent process, much more so than all the processes that we grew up with. I can take you to an antiques shop that’s 15 minutes from here and we can find a daguerreotype that was made in the 1850’s. and guess what? They’re still in perfect condition.