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Louis DaguerreLouis Daguerre

[du gAr'] inventor of the daguerrotype

Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre was born in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, on November 18, 1787. He showed early talent for drawing, and at the age of 16 began studying under the designer at the Paris Opera. Three years later he became the assistant of the panorama painter. In 1816 he branched out independently, and soon won considerable acclaim for his elaborate stage designs, as well as for his ingenious handling of lighting and lighting effects.

Having acquired enough money to set himself up as an artist, Daguerre graduated to painting panoramic views for the indoor "in the round" displays that were then very popular in Paris. To achieve perfect accuracy of representation, he drew the outlines of the views using a camera obscura, a light-tight box with a lens at one end to cast an image of the view on to a sheet of paper. In 1822, by using the same means, Daguerre introduced the Diorma. In this device, huge transparent and opaque painted screens were set up on a stage. By varying the lighting on the screens, so that one or the other or both were illuminated, he was able to produce the illusion of day and night passing over a scene such as a mountain pass or the interior of a church. The Diorama was an instant hit with Parisian audiences, and Daguerre became famous.

In 1826, Daguerre began a series of experiments to see whether the view projected on the screen of the camera obscura could be recorded on a plate by some chemical means. Fellow Frenchman Joseph-Nicéphore-Niépce was already working on such a means, but initially refused to let Daguerre help with the experiments. Daguerre persisted, however, and, in 1829, finally persuaded Niépce to enter into a partnership agreement. Although Niépce had already succeeded in producing the first "photograph" in 1826, that photograph had required an exposure time of eight hours in order to produce an image. It was that long exposure time that both men hoped to improve upon, but Niépce died before any workable process had been developed. Undaunted, Daguerre simply purchased Niépce's materials and continued the experiments.

In 1831, Daguerre discovered that a silver iodide plate was sensitive to light, but still failed to produce an image in the camera obscura in a reasonable time. The breakthrough came four years later, when Daguerre put an exposed plate in his chemical cupboard, intending to re-coat it for later experiments. When he removed the plate a few days later he found that the latent image had been developed. After a process of elimination he was able to conclude that mercury vapor from a broken thermometer had been responsible for producing the image. The mercury vapor had attached itself to the silver iodide affected by the light, thus producing a picture with brilliant highlights. This inadvertent discovery made it possible to reduce the exposure time from several hours to thirty minutes or so. By 1837 he had developed the Daguerreotype, an image developed on a highly-polished, silver-plated sheet of copper sensitized with iodine vapors, exposed in a large box camera, developed in mercury fumes, and stabilized with salt water.

The Daguerreotype was formally presented to the general public on August 19, 1839, and was an immediate sensation. Although Daguerre had agreed to make the process itself freely available to everyone in exchange for a lifetime pension from the French government, he wisely retained patent rights on the equipment necessary for the process. The pension, combined with royalties on his equipment patents, allowed Daguerre to spend the rest of his life in retirement and allow others to further perfect the photographic process. He died in Bry-sur-Marne (near Paris) on July 10, 1851.

Paris boulevard, 1839Daguerre's laboratory burned to the ground on March 8, 1839, taking all of his written records and the bulk of his early experimental works with it. Fortunately, however, one of the few original Daguerreotypes to survive was the one at left, taken in 1839. This picture of a Paris boulevard gives the impression of an empty street because the long exposure time prevented moving objects from registering. But, if you look closely, you can see something special towards the lower left corner of the image. A man chose to have his shoes shined while the picture was being exposed, and, since he and the shoe shine man stayed in one place long enough, the two became the first people ever to be photographed.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


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This page was last updated on 01/09/2017.