It doesn’t take long to be into photography before the name Louis Daguerre comes up as one of the most important pioneer’s in early photography.
Daguerre’s contribution was of course the daguerreotype, a revolutionary (for the time) process for making photographs on polished silver plated copper plates. Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation for how they were made, so I’ll just quote them:
To make the image, a daguerrotypist would polish a sheet of silver-plated copper to a mirror finish, treat it with fumes that made its surface light sensitive, expose it in a camera for as long as was judged to be necessary, which could be as little as a few seconds for brightly sunlit subjects or much longer with less intense lighting; make the resulting latent image on it visible by fuming it with mercury vapor; remove its sensitivity to light by liquid chemical treatment, rinse and dry it, then seal the easily marred result behind glass in a protective enclosure.
The daguerreotype would give way to more flexible and simpler types of photography and by the end of the century, to photographic film, but for about 20 years after it’s invention, was the most widely used photographic process in the world, helping to establish photography as a viable art form.
I quoted Wikipedia above not only to give a good explanation of what a daguerreotype is, but also to prove that today in 2019, any time we want to know more about something, we have resources online to look something up and find the information we need almost instantly.
This wasn’t always the case though, and back in the mid 20th century when someone wanted to learn about someone like Louis Daguerre or the daguerreotype, they’d have to go to a library or hope that their favorite photographic magazine would run a two part feature article on Louis Daguerre, which this being a Keppler’s Vault article is what happened in the December 1951 and January 1952 issues of Modern Photography.
Together, this two part article written by Beaumont Newhall spans 13 pages and starts of rightfully crediting people like Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Henry Fox Talbot, and Thomas Wedgewood all for having a role in the early days of photography and not giving Daguerre sole credit. The first 8 pages of the article speak to the historical side of how Daguerre got started and his early works, showing several really terrific photos of sample images and a diorama he made in the 1830s.
The second part focuses on some of the challenges that the world had in accepting the daguerreotype, from the difficulty in making it, to Daguerres challenges in making a living from his invention. Perhaps most interesting is a translation from a satirical magazine called Charivari that on August 30, 1839 published a rather dim view on the art of photography, mainly criticizing it’s complexity and impracticality.
Despite these challenges, the daguerreotype was successful and launched an entire industry of photography which still exists today. It’s hard to fully realize the impact that one man had, as there were other people working on similar processes at the time, and its plausible that had Daguerre never discovered his process, perhaps someone a couple months or years down the road would have figured it out too, but nevertheless, he did, and it worked and if you have any interest in photography, you owe at least some of that to Louis Daguerre.
In last week’s Keppler’s Vault, I changed how I present the articles. Instead of a gallery of JPG images of each page of the article that some readers have reported are difficult to read, I am presenting them all together in a single PDF file. You can open this PDF full size in your browser, or download it to your device using the link in the bottom toolbar if you wish.
Please let me know what you think of this change as I can always go back to the JPG gallery.
All scans used with permission by Marc Bergman, 2019.