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The daguerreotype was invented in Paris in 1839 by the painter Louis-Jacques Daguerre, and became a wildly successful form of portraiture among a rapidly growing middle class. Daguerre was a painter of theater background scenes, a job for which he often used a camera obscura to achieve proper perspective. His use of this tool instilled an interest in its potential for photographic use.

Through a mutual lens supplier, Daguerre became familiar with the experiments of Joseph Nicephore Niépce, who was successful in fixing the first photographic image. The two collaborated until Niépce's death, after which Daguerre continued to work until his discovery and perfection of the daguerreotype process in 1839.

Daguerreotypes were made by coating a copper plate with a highly polished layer of silver, sensitized with iodine. After exposure to light, the image was developed by mercury vapors and then fixed with a salt solution. Daguerreotypes were capable of capturing a startling amount of detail and the process spread rapidly to other parts of Europe and the United States. The characteristic mirror-like surface was due to the high reactivity of the materials used, and daguerreotypes were typically kept inside small, hinged books to protect the surface.

Quick Facts

  • Early daguerreotypes were usually of buildings, since a major drawback was the lengthy exposure time. Driven by a 19th-century interest in travel, photographers began using the technique to document archeological ruins
  • Louis Jacque Daguerre received financial support from the French government following their publication of a booklet describing the process of creating a daguerreotype in exacting detail. The book was translated into over 30 languages
  • The first person to use the daguerreotype process in the U.S. was inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, who used it to make portraits of his family despite the considerable exposure time

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Terri Peters & Associates

Terri Peters & Associates

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