daguerreotype photography

daguerreotypes photosThe Daguerreotype, the first practical photographic process, was patented in France in 1839 by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre and came to the United States under license secured by Samuel F.B. Morse. Daguerreotypes were still being made into the 1860s, but its heyday was from 1845 through 1855. Tens of thousands of "operators" of the art made many millions of pictures. Over 2000 photographers worked in New York City alone. By the mid-1850s the wet collodion negative and albumen paper, ambrotypes, and tintypes--all much cheaper and less labor intensive--caused the demise of the daguerreotype. After 150 years, however, they can still be found at flea markets, antique stores and auction houses typically in decorative leather or plastic cases with velvet lining- many in the same condition as the day they were made.

The Daguerreotype is made on copper that has been plated with pure silver. The plate has to be polished to a mirror surface and it is this mirror surface that distinguishes the daguerreotype from all other forms of photography. The silver is made light sensitive by exposing the silver to iodine and bromine vapors and after the picture is taken the plate is developed over hot mercury vapor (For a detailed description see the "Info" section at www.newdags.com). The final piece must be sealed under glass and in an airtight case.

Several aspects of the daguerreotype create a lure and mystique not found elsewhere. Whereas contemporary mediums use an emulsion of silver crystals on film and paper that create various degrees of "grain," the plate is one solid sheet of silver and photons of light react at the molecular level that cannot be seen without the aid of a scanning electron microscope. In other words, awesome detail and tones unmatched by anything since the daguerreotype was invented. Also, the final piece is metal and each daguerreotype is one of a kind and cannot be duplicated.

In recent years a genera of photography has emerged loosely described as "alternative processes." Modern equipment, employing film and digital, has made photography more accessible than ever (too easy) and the business and art of photography more competitive and alternative processes are a way to achieve a different look and maintain an arms length from the masses. Some would throw contemporary daguerreotypes into the realm of alternative processes, but most contemporary daguerreotypists would disagree.

There are a handful of people today making daguerreotypes and it is believed that through the years there was someone somewhere making them. Most found themselves involved through collecting vintage pieces or an interest in the history of photography and others, by the strangest of coincidences, actually meeting someone who made them. Once faced with the prospect, the great difficulty in making a daguerreotype is one factor in its appeal. All the equipment must be made to hold the chemicals and processing. There are no instruction sheets or supply houses for materials. But, to a greater extent, the daguerreotype is photography in its purest form; the common denominator being the subject, sunlight, the camera, and pure silver. The daguerreotypist either gets the picture or he doesn't and he does about once in every ten tries. There isn't a negative that can be salvaged or dark room manipulation or a bag full of tricks--or Photoshop.

Then too, virtually no one makes them which makes for a very exclusive club, however lonely it can be at times. Grant Romer, on Modern Daguerreotypy in John Wood's book, The Daguerreotype, put it somewhat differently. "If there is something magical in the daguerreotype, and all agree that there is, then those who make daguerreotypes, no matter how poorly, are magicians in a sense. For them, daguerreotypy is a kind of mystery school wherein one may gain hidden knowledge and transform oneself. To successfully make a daguerreotype is to gain the password of the first degree and initiation into an august occult society."

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