Louis Jacques Daguerre

Louis Jaques Mande Daguerre was born on the November 18th, 1787 in the commune of Cormeilles-en-Parisis in Val-d’Oise France. He was “born into a petit-bourgeois family, he lacked much formal education” (Marien, 12). He did have a particular drive to succeed and an outgoing personality. At a young age he began showing interest in design. He apprenticed as an architect, and then began working as a designer for the theatre at the age of 16. He began to get well known and received some acclaim for his work in Paris Theatres and was known by some as a “class hero”. “He had an astonishing ingenuity in the handling of light and lighting effects, and he supplied the scenic and lighting effects for a number of operas in theatres in Paris” (Leggat). He was one of the creators of diorama, which was the use of realistic effects in the theatre to thrill audiences. The effects included light shows and gigantic paintings of famous places. He needed to use a devise called the “camera obscura” to help him plan his visual effects.
This device got Daguerre interested in trying to preserve images, and he tried to chemically do so. His early attempts were unsuccessful. It wasn’t until he created a partnership in 1829 with Nicephore Niépce (who is credited to have created the first permanent photograph, using the heliograph in 1822). In their agreement “Daguerre promised to give Niepce an improved camera obscura and Niepce agreed to show Daguerre the means by which he was able to capture camera obscura images, which he did at his estate” (Marien, 12). It was later admitted by Daguerre that the camera obscura he gave to his partner was unable to take clear images. After Niece died in 1933 Daguerre continued to work on his research. In 1935 he had created some latent (undeveloped) images. He discovered that mercury fumes could be used to develop the images. One theory is that Daguerre had stored one of his latent images in his cabinet, and the fumes from the mercury of a broken thermometer is what developed the “photo”. He then later discovered that table salt could be used to stop the process of development. The process he discovered was dubbed the Daguerreotype. In August of 1939 Daguerre’s process was made public to the world, after being purchased from Daguerre by the French Government. “Government support for science and invention was an important feature of French intellectual life” (Marien, 14). His process spread rapidly around the world. Daguerre died July 10, 1851, and up till then hadn’t spent much time improving upon his process. The same year that he passed away Frederick Scott Archer discovered a new and improved photographic process.

Daguerre’s apparatus was invented by himself and the research he has from his previous partner Niepce. His process took a lot of trial and error before it was perfected, and even then it had its downsides. His photos were taken by taking a highly polished copper sheet plated with silver. He placed the plates with the silver side down over a closed box that contained iodine. Silver iodide was created when the silver fused with the iodine fumes. After exposing these plates to light for a few minutes by placing them in an adapted camera obsura, he would coat the plates with fumes from heated mercury, which caused the mercury to merge with the silver. The plates were then fixed using a sodium chloride solution, then rinsed in water. Daguerreotypes are not like the photos we are used to today. They needed to be kept sealed behind glass because they are very delicate and sensitive. At certain angles when you are holding a Daguerreotype, it looks almost like a mirror.
There were some obvious downsides to this method. The first is that the images were very fragile. Secondly, the early Daguerreotypes required such a long exposure time that portraiture was very difficult. Another drawback is that the images were reversed; sometimes photos were even taken into mirrors so that the subjects weren’t flipped in the image. The biggest downfall of the Daguerreotype is that the images couldn’t be reproduced. The wet collodion process that was discovered the year Daguerre died made it possible for a negative (printed on glass) to make multiple prints.
Most of Daguerre’s images have been lost over time, but the ones that stood the test of time were crystal clear and had a lot of contrast. For being one of the first photographers he definitely knew how to play with light to achieve the best image. Some of the earliest surviving Daguerreotypes are images he took of objects that he placed together to be in the shot. What is considered to be the oldest surviving Daguerreotype is an image of some clay sculptures, a bottle, and a framed image. Even in the earliest images the textures and tones are very well represented. His images of landscapes made city streets look empty because the exposure time was so long the walking subjects couldn’t be captured. Having experience in architecture and design gave Daguerre a good eye for composition and planning of a shot. Since the art form was so new, the aesthetic is really that of real life: trying to capture and reproduce real life images without having to paint or draw them. Daguerre himself said, “The Daguerreotype is not an instrument which serves to draw nature; but a chemical and physical process which gives her the power to reproduce herself” (Marien, 23).
Themes or Motifs-

Daguerre’s images started being of objects he would place together. An example is a photo he took of seashells sitting on shelves. He also took landscape shots, and photos of buildings. This interest likely stemmed from his experience with architecture. After the process was more refined, he began taking portraits. The Daguerreotype was most commonly used for portraiture. Subjects needed to stay perfectly still for several minutes, as the exposure time was so long. There were even devices to hold people heads in place when being photographed so that they wouldn’t move. Since few of Daguerre’s photos are available to view, it is difficult to notice any other themes or motives than those listed above. Many of his photographs were just testing the medium, for instance, he once tried to photograph the moon.
Daguerre’s photos were first taken to see if they could be taken. They were experiments, and done in the name of science. He was an inventor and wanted to be the first to have permanent photographs. As time passed, his photography served as a way for people to have their image live on, without needing to get their portrait painted. He was able to scientifically reproduce nature, although he insisted that nature itself was doing the work. His photos were also taken in the name of art. Being a painter and a printmaker, Daguerre appreciated the beauty of the world around him.

-Which Of The Above Issues are Most Important

The apparatus was likely of utmost importance to Daguerre. Unlike us, he couldn’t just go to a store and buy a camera and snap away. He was forced to create the process from scratch and literally spent years without even obtaining any promising results. As a viewer it is also interesting to look at his themes and motifs because it’s interesting to see what he took pictures of, as arguably the first ever photographer.

Photography: A Cultural History, 2nd Edition. Mary Warner Marien. Laurence King Publishing. 2006. (Accessed Online)
“DAGUERRE, Louis Jacques Mande”. Robert Leggat. 2000.

“Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography”. Malcolm Daniel. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. 2000.


“Louis Daguerre”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

“The Daguerreian Society” 1995-2005.