The Getty Museum YouTube series and the Allversity lecture on the history of photography both touch on the history of the daguerreotype, focusing on its role in the canon of photography as well as the technical aspects of producing these silver-faced copper plates.
The daguerreotype process is a method of image capturing that places an image onto a plate. The process entails heavily buffing and sensitizing the plate, ensuring light-sensitivity. The plate is placed silver side down into the camera, and the lens cap is removed to make the exposure; the speed of the camera is very slow, ranging from 20 seconds to 2 minutes. To develop the image, mercury vapor acts with the sensitized silver. A gilding stand is used to finish the plate.
This process is named for its creator, Louis-Jacque-Mandé Daguerre. It came into popularity in 1839, despite the laborious process which required a fair amount of equipment and skill to operate. While the daguerreotype was not the first photographic process, it was the first to become widely popular due in part to Daguerre’s willingness to sell the formula to the French Government. This effectively put the process into the public domain; the daguerreotype was enjoyed by a wide variety of people as a result, and many were able to make a living reproducing this process. To people in the mid-nineteenth century, the end product of the daguerreotype process was impressive; viewers considered them to be completely analogous to nature.
The daguerreotype swept through Paris and all over Europe before landing in America, where it enjoyed its largest surge of popularity. By the 1850s, it was common to see photographers practicing the daguerreotype process roaming Europe and America in mobile photo studios where they transported their chemicals, dark room, and other equipment. By this time, 3 million daguerreotypes were produced annually.
Daguerreotypes were typically kept and displayed in shallow-hinged brass cases with glass covers. Daguerreotypists displayed their wears in a wide variety of case types; these ranged from modestly constructed leather and cloth-covered wood to more elaborate cases made from molded thermoplastic. The business of producing these cases was an example of the industrial age production model; the work was primarily completed by women and children.
This process was king for a number of years, but was eventually overtaken by innovations that would be viewed as more conventional by today’s standards.