I attended a short lecture tonight at the Mount Auburn cemetary in Cambridge, MA on – of all things – daguerreotype. Not your usual bill of fare for a Thursday night, but hey, it was really interesting.
The speaker was Melissa Banta who is the Program Officer for the Harvard University Library. Apparently, Harvard has a substantial collection of daguerreotypes – more than 3,500 of them – and they are all reproduced digitally in an impressive, searchable web site freely available to the public.
But what is a daguerreotype? Well, thanks to Melissa, I can now answer that. Daguerreotypes were the first photographic process – invented by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (pronounced “Dagair”), a French inventor (1787 – 1851), who also, on a side-note, came up with the concept of the diorama. The chemistry that Daguerre and his colleagues figured out is to expose silver-coated copper plates to iodine, obtaining silver iodide in the process. Then the plates are exposed to light for several minutes, then coated with mercury vapor which amalgamated the mercury with the silver and, finally, the image is fixed with salt water. The image was then, typically housed under glass, framed and put inside a leather-bound case (a sort of portfolio folder), as you can see in the example at the top of Ralph Waldo Emerson (one from the Harvard Collection). I just love the detail in that image – the shadows and contrast – not to mention Emerson’s winning smile.
Apparently, Daguerre (and others) had figured out how to make an image using these chemicals, but it wasn’t until he figured out how to fix them (in 1837) that the “daguerreotype” (the process) was born.
A little sniffing around online pulls up all sorts of intriguing resources. For instance, The Daguerreian Society (who knew?) and the fact that, after Louis Daguerre published his manual on how to create the plates, the phenomenon known as “daguerreomania” erupted in England and France.
But here’s what I found totally fascinating. Unlike traditional photographs that pixellate and degrade as you magnify them, daguerreotype get more precise the closer you get. They are perfect recreations of the image, in all of its astonishing detail.