On January 7, 1839, members of the French Académie des Sciences were shown products of an invention that would forever change the nature of visual representation: photography. The astonishingly precise pictures they saw were the work of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), a Romantic painter and printmaker most famous until then as the proprietor of the Diorama, a popular Parisian spectacle featuring theatrical painting and lighting effects. Each daguerreotype (as Daguerre dubbed his invention) was a one-of-a-kind image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper.
He worked with Nicéphore Niépce, on how to make a permanent image using light and chemistry—and who had achieved primitive but real results as early as 1826. By the time Niépce died in 1833, the partners had yet to come up with a practical, reliable process.
Not until 1838 had Daguerre’s continued experiments progressed to the point where he felt comfortable showing examples of the new medium to selected artists and scientists in the hope of lining up investors.
Each daguerreotype is a remarkably detailed, one-of-a-kind photographic image 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 (or fixed) with salt water or “hypo” (sodium thiosulphate).
From the moment of its birth, photography had a dual character—as a medium of artistic expression and as a powerful scientific tool—and Daguerre promoted his invention on both fronts. Several of his earliest plates were still-life compositions of plaster casts after antique sculpture—an ideal subject since the white casts reflected light well, were immobile during long exposures, and lent, by association, the aura of “art” to pictures made by mechanical means.
Neither Daguerre’s microscopic nor his telescopic daguerreotypes survive, for on March 8, 1839, the Diorama—and with it Daguerre’s laboratory—burned to the ground, destroying the inventor’s written records and the bulk of his early experimental works.
Fewer than twenty-five photographs by Daguerre survive…