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PHOTOGRAPHY 150 : Images from the First Generation

A small exhibition of treasures from the Museum's celebrated collection of early photographs (1839 - 1859), to mark the 150th anniversary of the invention


This display case contains a selection from the Museum's small collection of daguerreotypes, one of the two independently-invented photographic processes which were announced to the public 150 years ago, in January 1839. Included are typical examples of the portrait daguerreotypes produced in large numbers during the 1840s and 1850s, and of the popular but rarer stereoscopic daguerreotypes. Rather more special are Antoine Claudet's early portrait of Michael Faraday, and the architectural study made in Italy by John Ruskin. The unfixed daguerreotypes taken by Hugh Lee Pattinson, still in their original tin box, are a remarkable survival, and show a metallurgical chemist taking a natural, amateur interest in the process. The oldest items in the display are the pair of full-plate daguerreotypes from Paris, which almost certainly date from 1840. There is reason to think they may have been the first daguerreotypes sent to Oxford; and this is perhaps why one of them depicts the Chambre des Deptues, where some of the debates about Daguerre's invention took place in 1839.

HISTORY The daguerreotype was invented by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787-1851), a theatrical scenery painter and showman. During his early experiments in the 1820s he heard of similar work by Niepce, and entered into a partnership with him. The invention of lithography in 1813 had inspired Niepce's quest for other reproductive techniques, and his is the earliest surviving photograph, taken with a camera obscura in 1826 or '27, the image formed of hardened bitumen on pewter. But it was not until 1837 (Niepce having died in 1833) that Daguerre devised a chemical process which was truly viable. At first he sought a purchaser, but the physicist Arago decided that the invention should be made freely available and Daguerre rewarded by the French government. Arago first announced it to the Paris Academie des Sciences on January 7, 1839, preceded by a leak to the press on January 6. The details remained strictly secret, and there was much speculation about them. On June 15 the Chambre des Deputes witnessed the conferment of a state pension on Daguerre and on the son of Niepce. On August 19 the full process was finally made public, though Daguerre had patented it in England a few days earlier. In September the first public demonstrations took place in Paris and London. An account was published, soon followed by an English translation.

During the following two years several chemical and optical improvements significantly increased the speed and quality of the process; and the new profession of photographer became established, relying on an increasingly fashionable demand for portraits. In England the first daguerreotypists were Beard and Claudet. The trade prospered especially in the early 1850s. In the long run, however, the daguerreotype proved limited in its potential, stylistically as well as technically. The new inventions of the early 1850s - the albumen print, wet collodion glass negative, and collodion positive - flourished alongside it for a while, but had totally superseded it (and the other first-generation processes) by the end of the decade.

SCIENCE The daguerreotype is supported on a copper plate, one side of which is covered with a thin layer of silver and highly polished (giving it the effect of a mirror). The silver surface was sensitised by exposure to the vapour of iodine crystals, forming a surface layer of light-sensitive silver iodide. Exposure in a camera obscura or photographic camera produced a latent (invisible) image. This was developed by exposing the surface to the vapour from heated mercury. The revealed image was then fixed, at first by soaking the plate in a strong solution of sodium chloride (common salt), which neutralised remaining light-sensitive agents; but mostly with 'hypo' (sodium thiosulphate), which dissolved away all the remaining silver iodide. The result was pale and fragile, and after 1840 a final stage was added of treating with a solution of gold chloride (gold toning), which improved the image tone and hardened the surface. Also after 1840 the speed of the process was improved by adding bromine or chlorine vapour to the initial sensitising with iodine. The image is a kind of negative which appears positive when correctly viewed. Unlike the contemporary paper processes, copies could not be made from it.

A camera was marketed under Daguerre's auspices in June 1839. The first lens specially designed for photography was Petzval's, first incorporated in Voigtlander's newly designed camera of 1841; its light-gathering ability reduced exposure times. Devices were also introduced to correct the lateral reversal of the image. Standard daguerreotype plates (full plates) were 8 ½ x 6 ½ inches, derived from printers' copper plates; but quarter-plate became the usual size. Because the image surface was both fragile and susceptible to tarnishing produced by the atmosphere, the finished daguerreotype was almost invariably encapsulated in an elaborate mount, and presented in a velvet-lined case made of leather-covered or cloth-covered wood or (later) of 'union', a thermoplastically-moulded material patented in America in 1854.

ART The daguerreotype plate is derived from the printer's copper plate. As an artefact the finished daguerreotype also resembles the medal, ceramic medallion, enamel plaque, and miniature painting. Tinted daguerreotypes directly succeeded to the market for portrait miniatures, and were framed or cased in much the same style. This ready-made niche made them instantly acceptable as cultural artefacts, and accounts for their great commercial success. Many early photographers were recruited from the ranks of miniaturists and other portrait painters, as well as silhouette cutters, drawing masters, lithographers, print sellers, pharmacists, and hair dressers. Extra popularity came with the one-piece stereoscope, invented by Brewster in 1849; and the fashion for seeing pictures in three dimensions gave a special impetus to the daguerreotype's style and subject matter - an interesting genre of still lifes, for instance.

Ingres was the first great artist to use daguerreotypes as 'sketches' for his paintings. In his last years Turner was fascinated by their ability to capture light, and formed a friendship with the photographer Mayall. Ruskin discovered daguerreotype views being sold in Venice during his studies of the architecture of that city, and also took some himself [see illustration]. Impressed by their sharpness and detail, he used them as sketches for his drawings, and for the engraved illustrations in books such as The Stones of Venice (1851-53), perhaps following the example of Lerebours, who commissioned travel scenes and published them as Excursions Daguerriennes (1840-43). Later Ruskin felt it necessary, as the claims of photography grew bolder, to deny that photographs could be works of art in their own right; but he had been the best champion of their place in the service and study of art. Stylistically and creatively the daguerreotype, for all its often-remarked qualities of light and detail, did not have the flexibility or expressive power that gave its rivals on paper - the calotype and salted paper print - the greater artistic reputation.

[From the exhibition booklet Photography 150: Images from the First Generation (Oxford: Museum of the History of Science, 1989)]

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