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Daguerreotype portraits – The first and the most commonly used photographic process, revealed to the world in 1839

David Goran

The daguerreotype process was the first practicable method of obtaining permanent images with a camera. It was invented by Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre and introduced worldwide in 1839. By 1860, new processes which were less expensive and produced more easily viewed images, had almost completely replaced it. During the past few decades, there has been a small-scale revival of daguerreotypy among photographers interested in making artistic use of early photographic processes.

To make a daguerreotype, the daguerreotypist 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 damaged result behind glass in a protective enclosure.

Portrait of a Daguerreotypist Displaying Daguerreotypes and Cases. source

Portrait of a Daguerreotypist Displaying Daguerreotypes and Cases. source

 

Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre, a French artist and photographer, recognized for his invention of the daguerreotype process of photography, 1844. source

Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre, a French artist and photographer, recognized for his invention of the daguerreotype process of photography, 1844. source

 

A photograph of a daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, American writer, editor, and literary critic, 1848, first published 1880. source

A photograph of a daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, American writer, editor, and literary critic, 1848, first published 1880. source

 

Adolph Friedrich Vollmer, a German landscape and marine painter and graphic artist, ca.1845. source

Adolph Friedrich Vollmer, a German landscape and marine painter and graphic artist, ca.1845. source

 

Alexander William Doniphan, 19th-century American attorney, soldier and politician between 1844 and 1860. source

Alexander William Doniphan, 19th-century American attorney, soldier and politician between 1844 and 1860. source

 

Benjamin Perley Poore, a prominent American newspaper correspondent, editor, and author in the mid-19th century, circa 1850. source

Benjamin Perley Poore, a prominent American newspaper correspondent, editor, and author in the mid-19th century, circa 1850. source

 

William Murray, Democratic Congressman from New York, between 1844 and 1860. source

William Murray, Democratic Congressman from New York, between 1844 and 1860. source

 

William Frederick Havemeyer. a German-American businessman and politician in New York, between 1844 and 1860. source

William Frederick Havemeyer. a German-American businessman and politician in New York, between 1844 and 1860. source

 

The first authenticated image of Abraham Lincoln was this daguerreotype of him as U.S. Congressman-elect in 1846, attributed to Nicholas H. Shepard of Springfield, Illinois. source

The first authenticated image of Abraham Lincoln was this daguerreotype of him as U.S. Congressman-elect in 1846, attributed to Nicholas H. Shepard of Springfield, Illinois. source

 

Solomon N. Carvalho, author, autoportrait, 1850. source

Solomon N. Carvalho, author, autoportrait, 1850. source

John C Calhoun, American politician and political theorist, 1849. source

John C Calhoun, American politician and political theorist, 1849. source

 


 

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). The image does not sit on the surface of the metal, but appears to be floating in space, with the illusion of reality, especially with examples that are sharp and well exposed is unique to the process.

Jakob Venedey, a German journalist, and politician, 1848. source

Jakob Venedey, a German journalist, and politician, 1848. source

 

Heinrich Joseph Compes, lawyer, and politician, 1848. source

Heinrich Joseph Compes, lawyer, and politician, 1848. source

 

Ezra B. French, United States Representative from Maine, between 1844 and 1860. source

Ezra B. French, United States Representative from Maine, between 1844 and 1860. source

 

Portrait of Franklin Pierce (1804–1869), 14th president of the United States, original 1855–1865. source

Portrait of Franklin Pierce (1804–1869), 14th president of the United States, original 1855–1865. source

 

Edwards Amasa Park, American Congregational theologian, between 1844 and 1860. source

Edwards Amasa Park, American Congregational theologian, between 1844 and 1860. source

 

Edward Troye, a painter of American Thoroughbred horse, circa 1870. source

Edward Troye, a painter of American Thoroughbred horse, circa 1870. source

 

Donald McKay, American Ship Builder. around 1854. source

Donald McKay, American Ship Builder. around 1854. source

 

Daguerreotype portrait of Tennessee politician Neill Smith Brown, 1849. source

Daguerreotype portrait of Tennessee politician Neill Smith Brown, 1849. source

 

Daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States. source

Daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States. source

 

Daguerreotype of Supreme Court justice Joseph Story, 1844. source

Daguerreotype of Supreme Court justice Joseph Story, 1844. source

Daguerreotype of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States at the age of 77 or 78 (1844 or 1845). source

Daguerreotype of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States at the age of 77 or 78 (1844 or 1845). source

 

Cornelius Vanderbilt, American business magnate, between 1844 and 1860. source

Cornelius Vanderbilt, American business magnate, between 1844 and 1860. source

Several types of antique photographs, most often ambrotypes and tintypes, but sometimes even old prints on paper, are very commonly misidentified as daguerreotypes, especially if they are in the small, ornamented cases in which daguerreotypes made in the US and UK were usually housed. The name “daguerreotype” correctly refers only to one very specific image type and medium, the product of a process that was in wide use only from the early 1840’s to the late 1850’s.

Although the daguerreotype process is sometimes said to have died out completely in the early 1860’s, documentary evidence indicates that some very slight use of it persisted more or less continuously throughout the following 150 years of its supposed extinction. The daguerreotype experienced a minor renaissance in the late 20th century and the process is currently practiced by a handful of enthusiastic devotees; there are thought to be fewer than 100 worldwide.