The Daguerreian Society



from the St. Louis and Canadian Photographer Vol. 11, No. 12 (December 1893) pp. 534-538.


The Daguerreotype.

BY ABRAHAM BOGARDUS.

ITS DISCOVERY.
   The daguerreotype on the silver plate is no longer in demand. It was the father of all the processes now used to produce pictures by the action of light on chemicals. While not entirely a "lost art" yet, its progeny are so much better adapted to the requirements of the age that it is almost forgotten. Four hundred years ago Porta invented the camera obscura. He had observed with great interest the representation of objects on the wall of a darkened room. His knowledge of optics induced him to employ a lens. By this he was able to reflect every object within its scope perfect in form, color and proportion. This ingenious apparatus, while entertaining and pleasing, in the course of time proved also suggestive.
   It had long been known that a solution of the salts of silver would become black if exposed to the light. The first recorded accounts of this change or color produced by light are attributed to the Swedish chemist Scheele, who lived in 1760. He demonstrated the fact. We have no account of his ever having used it for making pictures.
   For a century and a half learned men had by accident caught glimpses of its possibilities, and in the course of time a common application of this means was to place engravings over paper coated with the solution of nitrate of silver, and by exposing it to the sun an inverse representation of the engraving was produced, but these copies were evanescent; there was no known way of rendering them permanent. After a few hours, or as soon as brought to the light, the light continued its action, and the impression was lost in uniform blackness. During the latter part of the last, and the early part of the present century chemists and men of science made many experiments in this direction, but were not successful in obtaining anything of value.
   During the last century James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, made some experiments. Mathew Bolton, of Soho, near Birmingham, England, also worked in the same direction. In 1802 Mr. Thomas Wedgewood, the eminent porcelain manufacturer, in conjunction with Sir Humphrey Davy, made a series of experiments with silver salts on paper and white leather with the view of copying drawings on glass. About 1818 Charles, a French chemist, announced his ability to make "black profiles" by the action of light, but his productions were not popular, and are entirely lost sight of.
   As early as 1814 M. Niepce, of Chalons, produced impressions on various chemical substances. In 1827 he visited England, but his results were not recognized by the Royal Society, and in 1828 he returned to Chalons and continued his experiments. He named his productions "Heliographs, a method of fixing the image of objects by the action of light." He died 1833.
   In 1824 Louis Jacques Daguerre, while interested in the figures of his camera obscura, thought it would be possible to catch and hold those figures. With his knowledge of chemistry, and without connivance or even acquaintance with Niepce, he commenced a series of experiments in the same field. In 1826 he was introduced to Niepce, and in 1829 they agreed to combine in prosecuting their researches. This continued until the death of Niepce. Six years after the death of Niepce Daguerre announced his success. This was January, 1839.
   In the early part of the same year, 1839, H. Fox Talbot, an Englishman, startled the scientific world by announcing that he had discovered a method of representing objects by the agency of light. Talbot was the first to publish the discovery. He had years of scientific research in pursuit of such a desirable result. On the 31st of January, 1839, he sent to the Royal Society of England a statement of his success in photogenic drawing, or "A process by which natural objects can by the action of light on chemicals delineate themselves without the aid of the artist's pencil." Three weeks later he made a further communication, stating the means used, and giving the method of preparing the paper to receive the image. At the same time stating the means of fixing the impression.
   Daguerre announced his discovery the same month, yet it was some months later before he made his process public. It can not be decided as to whom the priority of invention belongs. The first announcement was made by the Englishman. The discovery seems to have been nearly simultaneous. In England by Talbot, in France by Daguerre. Talbot commenced his experiments in 1834. He knew nothing of those being prosecuted by Daguerre in France, and Daguerre was unaware that the Englishman was investigating the same subject. Daguerre was now assisted by the son of Niepce, his former co-laborer in his experiments. The production of the sun picture on paper was by Talbot. The employment of the silver plate was by Daguerre.
   The inventions are distinct, both accomplished the result by the use of different substances for the reception of the impression; yet both using light to produce chemical action.
   Daguerre never succeeded in taking portraits by his process, as the exposure required from fifteen to thirty minutes in the sunshine; he used it on inanimate objects. In America a Mr. Walcott claims to have made the first portrait by the daguerreotype, using Daguerre's process.
   Many give the credit to Prof. John W. Draper, while Mr. Joseph Dixon, by letters and other evidence, proves that he made a portrait of Mrs. Dixon three months earlier than either of them. Mrs. Dixon sat in full sunshine fifteen minutes with powdered face.
   The following is an extract from a letter by Professor S. F. B. Morse to the writer in 1871. He says:
   "In 1838 I visited Europe with my telegraphic invention, and early in the spring of 1839, in Paris, I formed the acquaintance of Daguerre, whose discovery of fixing the image of the camera obscura, in connection with M. Niepce, was creating a great sensation in the scientific world. A proposition at that time was before the French Chamber of Deputies to grant Daguerre and Niepce a pension on condition that their process was given to the public. Daguerre had freely shown to high officials the results of his process, but, by the advice of the distinguished Arago, who had charge of the pension proposals in the Chambers, he had abstained from any publicity of his formula until his pension should be secured. At this time my telegraph was exciting in the French capital a similar sensation. I had made arrangements to leave Paris for home in March. One morning, in conversation with our eminent and worthy Consul, Robert Walsh, Esq., I lamented the necessity of leaving Paris without seeing these photographic results. He at once entered into my feelings and said, 'I think you will find no difficulty in obtaining a sight of them; drop a note to Daguerre and invite him to see your telegraph, and I have no doubt he will return the compliment by inviting you to see his results.' The plan was successful. M. Daguerre invited me to see his results at his diorama where he had his laboratory, and the day after accepted my invitation to witness the operation of my telegraph. And it is a noticeable incident that during the two hours in which he was with me his diorama and the beautiful results I had seen the day before were consumed by fire.
   "In my interview with him I requested him as soon as his pension bill was passed, and the publication of his process was made, to send me a copy of his work. This he courteously promised to do. And accordingly, in the summer of 1839. I received from him probably the first copy that came to America. From this copy, in which of course were the necessary drawings, I had constructed the first daguerreotype apparatus made in the United States. My first effort with it was on a small plate of silvered copper, about the size of a playing card, procured from a hardware store, but, defective as it was, I obtained a good representation of the Church of the Messiah in Broadway,--taken from a back window in the New York University. This was before the construction of the New York Hotel. This I believe to have been the first photograph ever taken in America.
   "I practised it many months, taking pupils, many of whom at this day are the most successful photographers. I made arrangements to experiment with my eminent friend and colleague, Prof. John W. Draper, building for the purpose a photographic studio upon the top of the University. Here, I believe, were made the first successful attempts by Dr. Draper in taking portraits with the eyes open, I having previously succeeded in taking portraits with the eyes shut.
   "In reply to a question which I put to M. Daguerre, Cannot you apply this to portraiture? he gave it as his opinion that it would be impracticable, as, in obtaining his results on still objects the time necessary rendered it impossible for any one to preserve an immovable position so long."

ITS ADVENT AND PRACTICE IN NEW YORK.
   When the discovery of Daguerre was published it created a great excitement. Scientific men as well as the general public were interested. The newspapers of that date eagerly sought and published every item of news in regard to it. The master minds of the period were astonished at its results and its apparent capabilities. An English journal says: "Daguerre's ingenious discovery continues to excite very great curiosity and admiration. It is affirmed that the Emperor of Russia has offered him 500,000 francs for his secret, and he has declined the munificent offer. Sir John Herschel has turned his attention to the subject, and has already obtained pictures from the light of Daniell's great galvanic battery. Sir David Brewster, too, has commenced an investigation into the matter." In America a new field for investigation opened. College professors, chemists, scientific men, in fact all kinds of men commenced experimenting with the silver plate and a camera. The camera in many instances being "home made," and often constructed from a cigar box. When the experimenter succeeded in getting a visible impression it was carried in his pocket and shown to all friends as the result of his skill in working the new wonder.
   In March, 1840, Messrs. Wolcott & Johnson opened a gallery in New York. and announced their readiness to execute daguerreotype portraits for the public. This was the first daguerreotype gallery in the world.
   The great interest of the public was shown by the way crowds besieged the door of a gallery where a small frame containing half a dozen pictures was exhibited. Everybody seemed anxious to get a sight of the mysterious pictures. The remarks they made were very amusing. One said, "the sun burns it on the plate if you sit in front of the machine." Another, "If you look at the glass steadily you grin yourself on the plate." Another settles it all by saying, "The plate is a looking glass and your shadow sticks on the plate if you keep still long enough." These and other remarks showed how little the general public knew about the difficult, delicate, mystic daguerreotype. The dark room was also a matter beyond the comprehension of the public. We were often asked "What we did in there?" Many supposed we did some hocus-pocus or sleight-of hand work; used some mystic words, or performed an incantation to conjure up the picture. There was great anxiety to get a peep into that closet, where the supposed mystery was performed, little aware that the least gleam of light would fog the picture or destroy it entirely.
   With Yankee promptness galleries were soon opened in different parts of the city. Professor Morse made pictures for the public in the building on the northeast corner of Beekman and Nasssu streets. He did not continue to practice it long as his telegraph invention absorbed his whole time and attention. He continued to take great interest in the photograph as long as he lived. He often called and remained for hours examining each and every new phase of the process. One day he was present when a picture of a lady was made so perfect as to show the eyelashes; he quietly studied it for awhile and then used the well remembered first despatch across the ocean through his telegraph wire, "What hath God wrought."
   Improvement came fast and the daguerreotype became popular, every family had its collection and an evening visit would bring them all to your notice for admiration and criticism. Brady's famous gallery on the southwest corner of Broadway and Fulton street is well remembered. Gurney, on Broadway, facing John street. Plumb, at Murray street, and many others were all crowded with customers every clear day.
   The time of sitting (by successful experiments) had been reduced from three and four minutes to half a minute and soon after to ten or twelve seconds. All successful operators were kept busy from morning until sunset; sitters were often obliged to wait for hours for an opportunity to sit.
   For several years all pictures were made by side windows, but skylights were afterwards built as they furnished more light and gave better effects. One of the first skylights in New York was built on top of the granite building, corner of Broadway and Chambers street. It was made to revolve on a track to enable the operator to follow the sun in its travels. Elevators were not in use then, and the aspirant for a picture must climb half a dozen flights of stairs to be immortalized by a daguerreotype.
   The American daguerreotypists soon beat the world in execution. At the great World's Fair held in London, 1865, the New York daguerreotypists carried off the gold medal. And at that date the gold medal meant a great deal
   The introduction of the photograph on paper about 1860 entirely superseded the silver picture, and they were no longer in demand. The writer still considers the well executed daguerreotype the best picture ever made with a camera. It was made on a plate with silver surface; the plate must be perfectly clean and buffed to extreme sensitiveness. It was then coated with the vapors of iodine and bromine. After being exposed in the camera, the image was developed over the fumes of hot mercury. A solution of hyposulphite of soda removed the chemicals, the picture remaining. It was then coated with a solution of chloride of gold, and it will not fade. It does become tarnished and to all appearance gone, but the tarnish can be removed by a person understanding the proper mode of procedure, and the picture is still there. They can be restored to their original perfection and will last for hundreds of years. I have scores of them made in 1846 and the following years, just as perfect as they were the day they came from the camera. An incident well remembered was when a lady bought a case said to contain a picture; it was completely covered by a film and nothing could be seen on the plate. She had been told that I could restore it. In a few minutes I showed it, to her just as perfect as it ever was. She fainted on seeing it, as it was her husband who had been dead over twenty years; she had not expected to see his picture again; now she saw it just as he was in life.
   It will not do to attempt to restore a picture by rubbing it; one or two rubs will entirely obliterate it, and then it will never be restored.
   It required long practice to be able to manage the delicate chemical vapors used in making the picture. If the day was very warm they "flashed" and were unmanageable. If cold, they would not work at all; during a damp atmosphere the plate would not receive a sensitive surface. We were often obliged to ask sitters to come another day when perhaps the "chemicals would work better. Every change of atmosphere would make a difference in the tone of the picture.
   In the course of time, by careful attention and continued practice, we were able to produce the desired effects with almost absolute certainty. For every sitting we must give attention to the state of the atmosphere, the thermometer's record, the strength of the light, the hour of the day and passing clouds. While the sitter thought we should give all attention to his necktie, or the proper disposing of her ribbons, we were obliged to give almost entire attention to these more important matters, if we would produce a satisfactory impression on the plate.
   The apparatus used in making the daguerreotype have in most instances been destroyed. Yet it is a gratification to know that Columbia College has secured and will preserve a complete set of everything used in making them. —Christian Intelligencer.

(End of text. Please refer to our textnote regarding this text.
The transcriber also notes that this letter quoted by Bogardus varies slightly from another Morse letter [also in 1871] received by Edward L. Wilson and published in The Philadelphia Photographer of January, 1872.)

We also have available two other articles by Bogardus: "The Lost Art of the Daguerreotype" from The Century Magazine of May 1904; and "Leaves from the Diary of a Photographer" from the St. Louis and Canadian Photographer of January 1895.

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