Daguerreotype Photography

Photo of Daguerreotypes.

In 1826, Frenchman Joseph-Nicephore Niepce took a picture (heliograph, as he called it) of a barn. The image, the result of an eight-hour exposure, was the world's first photograph. Little more than ten years later, his associate Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre devised a way to permanently reproduce an image, and his picture—a daguerreotype—needed just twenty minutes' exposure. A practical process of photography was born.

The beginning of the nineteenth century was an exciting time to be alive. As people began to learn more and more about the world around them in increasing detail, the need for capturing surroundings more accurately arose. This need eventually exceeded the capability of the artist's hand alone. People sought ways of directly capturing images so that Nature was somehow able to portray herself.

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre was born near Paris, France in 1787. The illusionistic painter Pierre Prevost asked him to join his team of panorama-painting artists when he was just twenty years old. Daguerre soon after became an assistant stage designer for a theater. He was a gifted illusionist in terms of his ability to design sets that dazzled his audiences. An artist who wanted his work to be as real as possible, Daguerre created amazingly life-like scenes right in the theater. These designs, which were able to simulate the passage of day into night, changes in weather, and even give viewers the feel of motion, Daguerre later coined as "dioramas," or "dramas of light." By 1825, Daguerre was a successful creator, proprietor, and promoter of a successful illusionistic theater in Paris that specialized in these dioramas.

Daguerre's illusions depended heavily on the accurate representation of detail and perspective on a large scale. So, like many others of his day, he used the camera obscura* as a tool to help him trace two dimensionally what his eyes saw in three. Daguerre explained that the magic of his dioramas resulted from his use of light in the scenes. He claimed to have discovered a system of painting that could transform the appearance of an object by switching between reflected and refracted light, as well as by changing the color of the light that fell upon it.