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Old Photography Process: Daguerreotype

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During 19th century many photographic techniques have been developed and improved and there were also some new ones. Calotype was the first photo picture that you could get from negative, collodion wet plate gave permanent negative on glass and ambrotype and ferrotype were cheaper version of it.

When black and white photography was at its climax, in 1839 Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre introduced worldwide the new process – Daguerreotype.

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Daguerreotype, unfortunately, did not live long. Many photography enthusiasts tried to revive, and still rarey use it in art projects, but due to being very expensive and complicated process, it had a short life.

After being introduced in 1839, it took only twenty years for it to be completely replaced by other simpler processes.

What makes daguerreotype so special, one might wonder? It looks nothing like any other kind of photography, it does not sit on surface of metal but appears to be floating, giving the viewer the illusion of reality.

It is made on a polished a sheet of silver-plated copper to a mirror finish, but other metals such as brass can be used for the substrate. Later, it is treated with fumes that made its surface light-sensitive. Rarely, solid silver plates were used.

Polishing was a slow process and much of the final product depended on it – the plate had to be perfect, mirror like, and free of tarnish or other contamination, so it was necessary for daguerreotypist to do the polishing short before the use.

The second part is exposure – it is exposed in a camera for as long as was judged to be necessary, depending on lighting and subject, but because it was mostly used for portraiture without direct sunlight, it took couple of hours. Image is made visible by fuming it with mercury vapor, and the next part of the process is to remove its sensitivity to light by liquid chemical treatment.

At the end, there is rinsing and drying, and then sealing your product behind glass in a protective enclosure, which is called “Union Case”. Union Cases were produced from 1850s and they represent the early thermoplastic technology.

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Since daguerreotype is on a mirror like surface, usually covered with glass, depending on an angle it can be viewed both as positive and negative. It’s very delicate and has to be protected from a sunlight and extreme temperatures, and stored glass side down or on edge.

Size of daguerreotypes also varied; from the whole plate to a one sixteenth of a plate but the most common size is one sixth of a plate, which comes to approximately 2 3/4″ x 3 1/4”.

Daguerreotypes are usually reversed images. The one way to get a correct orientation of it was to make the original daguerreotype using a reversing prism or mirror, which makes the whole process even more complicated and takes more time.

The other way is to copy the image with a second daguerreotype.

Besides the complexity, a problem with a reversing mirror was, if taken outdoors, it may be subject to movement causing a blurred and unclear image, and one of the main characteristics of daguerreotype is its sharpness and clarity.

Since it was so complicated process and very expensive (even for a contemporary man), with a big chance of failure, people just lived with reversed images.

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