The Daguerrotype process has its origins in 19th century France. Joseph Niépce was the inventor of photography. However, French painter Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (18 November 1797 – 10 July 1851) with his particular photographic process made it practical and popular. On 19 August 1839 the first Daguerrotype portrait was created. This so-called “light-based portraiture” had its breakthrough only after French King Louis Philippe had purchased the invention.
Daguerreotypy is a process in which chemical and physical forces are used. Therefore silver or silver-plated copper – and later glass – were used. They were polished and treated with iodine and bromine vapor. With the help of mercury vapor and a camera obscura the photograph was developed. The exposure time in the camera obscura only lasted 15 to 30 minutes, which compared to Niépce’s heliography, which took eight hours, was very short. Then the photograph was arrested in a hot bath of highly concentrated saline or sodium thiosulfate. Due to this procedure all silver iodide particles not exposed to the light were washed away.
Thus something unique is created – a unique picture which, unlike the later positive-negative-process, couldn’t be duplicated. You get a positive, albeit reversed image of blackish silver. Under optimal lighting conditions you can see the image perfectly clear. Depending on the angle of incidence, you get the impression of a negative. For the coloration of the image colored sawdust was used. That, however, turned out to be a rather complicated procedure and only few selected artists had the skills to do it. Moreover, Daguerreotypies are extremely sensitive, which is why they are often protected with glass or framed.
Most Daguerreotypies were produced on a fairly small plate (a so-called quarter plate; 10.8 x 8.1 cm), which is why for instance observers, in order to see all the minor details, had to use a magnifying glass. But these very tiny details and particularities hadn’t existed in any medium before and made Daguerreotypy so special. It took some time and concentration to see the entire picture and a magnifying glass served as a helping hand. When looking at a Daguerreotypy the surroundings disappear in the background – thus you get completely immersed into the world of the picture.
The Daguerreotype process became one important mile stone in the history of photography and it can be considered as the origin of photo journalism. One relevant reason why this particular process couldn’t be maintained in its original way in the long run was the use of harmful toxic substances. At the same time as Daguerreotypy was invented, other typies emerged in the field of photography: heliography, Talbotypy, ambrotypy, ferrotypy, the wet-collodium process and Wothlytypy. Talbotypy, also known as calotypy, resembles the Daguerreotype process and was developed at the same period by the English William Henry Fox Talbot. The most significant differences between both processes are the surface being used (in calotypy paper is used) as well as their consistency. Talbot’s photographic process is even used today in a modified way. The wet-collodium process paved the way to a more cost-effective and a more high-quality form of Daguerreotypy and calotypy. From this point on photographs could also be duplicated. In the course of time photography with gelatin-dry plates emerged. Thus photography reached the broad masses.