Nov 182011

Born on 18 November 1787, Daguerre was a French painter and stage designer, who gave his name to the daguerreotype, the first practical and commercially successful photographic process.

Daguerre abandoned his architectural training in 1804, turning to scene painting at the Paris Opéra. In 1822 he developed the diorama, with help from Charles Boulton, and continued to make dioramas for 17 years. The diorama was a large-scale peep show in which a painting on a large translucent screen was seemingly animated by the skilful play of light on each side.

Daguerre used the camera obscura to make sketches for his stage designs and was looking for ways to avoid the tedious and repetitive tracing and copying which this involved. He surmised that it might be possible to achieve this chemically. In 1826 he got wind of the fact that J. N. Niépce was working toward the same end and had made some progress. Letters were exchanged and Niépce revealed to Daguerre his ‘heliograph’ process. In 1829 Daguerre and Niépce formed a partnership to develop the method.

The first commercial daguerreotype camera, from 1839.  

Heliography depended on the hardening action of sunlight on bitumen and the subsequent dissolution of the soft shadow parts of the image. Using this method on a glass plate, Niépce had obtained and fixed a photograph from the camera obscura in 1826. He wasn’t satisfied with this – he wanted to fix a visible image on to a photo-engraved plate, from which he could take prints. Experimentation led him to use bitumen on silver-coated copper-plates.

Building on Niépce’s work, Daguerre discovered the light sensitivity of silver iodide in 1831. His problem was to obtain a visible image, but in 1835 he discovered that the image present on a silver iodide plate exposed for just 20 minutes could be developed with mercury vapour. This was a major advance. By removing the unreduced silver iodide with a solution of common salt (1837) he was able to fix the image and make it permanent.

Louis Jacques Daguerre. Untitled (The first daguerreotype, plaster casts on window sill). 1837 The first daguerreotype, 1837, showing plaster casts on a window sill.

Daguerre approached the French Government in January 1839 with details of the process. The government agreed to pay him a pension for life and in return announced that the invention was free to the world. Well, other than in Britain. Here, a patent was taken out on behalf of Daguerre, leading to a period of litigation and stalemate with Fox Talbot who had come up with his own rather different method of recording pictures.

Daguerre was appointed an officer of the legion d’honneur and retired to Bry-sur-Marne in 1840 and died there on July 10, 1851. He had little more to do with the daguerreotype, leaving its improvement to others. It was perhaps the invention which most caught popular fancy in the mid-19th century, when millions of daguerreotypes were sold, but it proved to be a blind alley in the development of modern photography. In the end the Fox Talbot method, involving a negative image and a process whereby an unlimited number of positive copies could be made, was the commercial winner. I still have dozens of daguerreotypes of sturdy aunts and moustachioed uncles, edged in small brass frames and with red velvet covers. Hold the image at the wrong angle and you get a smudged mirror; tilt it correctly and a face from 150 years ago comes hauntingly to life.

So let us put aside mere feelings of national rivalry: happy birthday Louis! You played your part, and helped change the way we see our world.

File:Louis Daguerre 2.jpg

  2 Responses to “Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) – say ‘cheese’!”


    The daguerréotype’s drawback is that it was a unique image which could not be reproduced. Its advantage is the minute precision of the details: in city views you can read all the shop signs, even if you need a magnifying glass, and almost count the cobbles in the street. Moving objects, on the other hand, are blurs. There exist many wonderful views of pre-Haussmannian Paris, still largely a mediaeval city, in all its shabby picturesqueness.


    Absolutely right – the clarity and detail in the early daguerreotypes is amazing.

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