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Mirrors of Ourselves

Common Faces
The Art of the Daguerreotypes

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This page and the daguerreotype scans have been contributed by Avishai Halevy

It is odd that todays music CDs remind me so much of an old form of keeping records. In a fancy jewel box on a silver mirror like surface one can find old tunes. Symphony of light captured. Looking at the shinny surface you can only see yourself and then when you take a better look they appear, images of past.

I keep my Daguerreotypes in an old box in the attic. Not a rich person, I did not actively looked for daguerreotypes. Just wandered around and collected them like wild flowers. When I saw a beautiful image my pulsed increased, my hands started sweating an d my all body switched to "must have it" mood. In between the years of 1976 and 1986 I managed to collect a box full of miniature cases with their hidden mirror like images. Daguerreotypes flourished between 1840 and 1860 and are one of a kind, I was happ y to own a small piece of history. Common people starring into the future. Daguerreotypes have special charm. Hidden inside small cases opening like a book, sitting inside a velvety surrounding, framed by a golden decorated mat, shining proudly.

We have seen the views taken by the Daguerreotype, and have no hesitation in avowing, that they are the most remarkable objects of curiosity and admiration, in the arts, that we have ever beheld. Their exquisite perfection almost transcends the bounds of sober belief.
---The Knickerbocker, 1839

The New Art,---We saw the other day, in Chilton's, in Broadway, a very curious specimen of the new mode, recently invented by Daguerre in Paris, of taking on copper the exact resemblances of scenes and living objects, through the medium of sun's rays refl ected in a camera obscura. The scene embraces a part of St. Paul's church, and the surrounding shrubbery and houses, with a corner of the Astor House, and for aught we know, Stetson looking out of a window, telling a joke about Davie Crockett. All this is represented on a small piece of copper equal in size to a miniature painting.
--New York Morning Herald, September 30, 1839

The Daguerreian artist should possess quick perceptive powers; an eye for the beautiful, which will enable him at a glance to decide on expression and position...The picture should express feeling, thought and intelligence...It is the "everyday," "home" expression, which renders the picture an object of admiration in the familiar circle where it is to be appreciated."
--"The True Artist,"Daguerreian Journal , August 1851

Daguerreotypes are posed images. And because so many of their makers are unknown, and their subjects cannot be identified, we become reliant on the autonomy of the image itself. They embody the subject of communication itself, which survives the lost context of the making of these images. In America the daguerrean vision was an attitude not only toward face and place but also possessions and responsibilities. The ingenuousness of commonplace prosperity marks an entire category of daguerreotype images. Houses, livestock, carriages, families, and children are framed with simple directness. Sharing the same impulse toward vernacular formulas as American folk art, the convention of the familiar object and the average person, rendered with bold frontality, carries with it an intensity of observation that goes far beyond description to become a form of impersonal expression.
--Merry A. Foresta, "Secrets of the Dark Chamber" 1995

The Daguerreotype Process
The first practical process of photography, invented by L. J. M. Daguerre, was presented free to the world on August 1839. Formed on a silver plate, the dageurreotype has the most exquisite image qualities in photography: a range of lustrous, silvery tones unattainable by any other process and complete freedom from grain. However, the image is exceedingly delicate, the silver plate is highly susceptible to tarnishing, and the image is a unique direct positive; it cannot generate multiple identical copies as can a negative.
The cost of a portrait ranged from about $2.00 for a sixth plate to more than $30.00 for a whole plate (see below), prices that in the 1840s and 1850s were beyond most people, except for special ocassions.
A daguerreotype is made on a sheet of silver-plated copper. The surface is polished to a mirror like brilliance and made light-sensitive by coating with iodine fumes. The plate is then expose d to an image sharply focused by the camera's well-ground, optically correct lens. Removed by the camera, the plate is treated with mercury vapors in order to develop the latent image. Finally, the image is "fixed" by removing the remaining photosensitive salts in a bath of "hypo" (sodium thiosulfate) and toned with gold chloride to improve contrast and durability. Color, made of powdered pigment, was applied directly to the metal surface with a finely-pointed brush. The first camera's required a lengthy exposure time lasting many minutes. By the 1840s various optical means had reduced the exposure time to three or at most five minutes, and by the end of the decade to a matter of seconds. Daguerreotypists learned that their plates were more sensitive in dry weather than in damp, and that just before a thunderstorm their exposures were the shortest. Until cameras were equipped with a mirror to correct the error, daguerrean images remained reversed from right to left.

Standard Daguerreotype Sizes:

Whole plate - 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches
Half plate - 4 1/4 by 5 1/2 inches
Quarter plate - 3 1/4 by 4 1/4 inches
Sixth plate - 2 3/4 by 3 1/4 inches
Ninth plate - 2 by 2 1/2 inches
Sixteenth plate - 1 3/8 by 1 5/8 inches

Quoted from: ICP Encyclopedia of Photography / Pound Press, Inc. 1984 and
" Secrets of the Dark Chamber: The Art of the American Daguerreotype" / National Museum of American Art, 1995.

A comprehensive historical survey of the daguerreian art "The American Daguerreotype" by Floyd Rinhart and Marion Rinhart was published in 1981 by The University of Georgia Press.
For a wonderful site with lots of daguerreotypes, visit the exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution: National Museum of American Art: Secrets of the Dark Chamber A fascinating catalogue " Secrets of the Dark Chamber: The Art of the American Daguerreotype" was published in 1995 on the occasion of the exhibition.

Visit the Daguerreian Society's Home page. The Daguerreian Society's expanded presence on the World Wide Web: Three galleries & and more to come; 19th and 20th texts about the daguerreotype; information regarding The Daguerreian Society.

Return to Fixing Shadows' Found Photos page.