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The Early American Daguerreotype

The daguerreotype, invented in France, came to America in 1839. It was, as Sarah Kate Gillespie's book The Early American Daguerreotype shows, something wholly and remarkably new: a product of science and innovative technology that resulted in a visual object. We're celebrating World Photo Day with an excerpt from The Early American Daguerreotype.

Originally a French invention, daguerreotyping—a photographic process that produces extremely detailed images—reached American shores in the fall of 1839. A daguerreotype is a direct-positive image on a silvered copper plate. Historically, the plate was polished until it had a mirror-like surface, then was treated with lightsensitive chemicals. The plate was then fitted into a camera and exposed to the subject. Once exposed, the plate was developed above a box of mercury fumes, and the image was fixed in a bath of hyposulfate of soda. The finished product was then washed and dried. Because the surface remained sensitive, it was placed under a plate of glass and usually put in a case.

The year 1851 was a momentous one for the American daguerreotyping, and there were several signs it had reached maturity. In addition to the first organized conventions and the calls for a national organization, 1851 saw the publication of the second American journal devoted exclusively to photography, the Photographic and Fine-Art Journal. Samuel Dwight Humphrey’s Daguerreian Journal had come out a year earlier. Both publications promised to consider the technical, artistic, and scientific aspects of the medium and also to pay attention to insider’s gossip. In addition, 1851 saw the opening of the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, at which it was the general consensus that the American daguerreotypes were far superior to those exhibited by other countries. Indeed, it was in regard to the American daguerreotypes shown at the Crystal Palace that Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, remarked: “In daguerreotypes, we beat the world.” And it wasn’t only Americans who thought their country had “beaten the world” in the photographic department. One British guidebook to the exhibition remarked: “In photography, the American department was peculiarly rich; and it is but just to state, that many important improvements in the details of our photographic processes have been supplied by the skill and unwearied experimental research of our transatlantic cousins.” Americans hadn’t invented the daguerreotype, but in the twelve years since it had been introduced to their shores they had improved upon it to such a degree that it was referred to as “the American process.”

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the idea that certain knowledge would become accessible only to the specialized few went against American ideals. Technology was meant to make that knowledge accessible to anyone, to advance the nation as a whole. This idea of the accessible can also be applied to the fine arts in that period. There was an interest in imagery that reflected truth, and that in turn was easily understood by the average viewer. Painting, like photography, was seen as a potential leveler; it became democratic when anyone could understand it.

In America, both art and science were experiencing a tension between what was thought of as “democratic” and what was thought of (in popular culture, at least) as “elite.” Democratic art and science were knowable, understandable, and easily digestible for a middle-class population; elitist practices were inscrutable, unfathomable, and required special education to understand. The daguerreotype contained elements of both the “democratic” and the “elite.” It was clearly populist in that nearly anyone, of any means, could have a portrait taken. It was believed to be a form of direct representation, as the images plainly revealed the sitter’s accurate likeness, accessible to any viewer. The daguerreotype had an aura of reality due to its indexical nature—its causal relationship with the referent, which led to the medium’s gaining a reputation for telling not only the truth of about someone’s appearance but also the truth about someone’s nature.

The daguerreotype was the primary photographic medium in the United States until the Civil War. A product of art, science, and technology, it entered into the existing culture of these fields and affected their production, simultaneously creating a new aesthetic and a flourishing commercial product.

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