Daguerreotype Q&A


Since my recent visit to the End of the Oregon Trail, I've been wondering about daguerreotypes. After a bit of research, I bring you this Daguerreotype Q&A:

Why doesn't anyone smile in these pictures? The common answer for this is a partially fact-based myth: because it took a long time to expose the image, the subject had to sit still. And, the story goes, frowning is easier to hold in place than smiling. The truth is that very early daguerreotypes (those from 1839-1845) did take 60-90 seconds of sitting still to capture an image, but the majority of daguerreotypes we see today are from post-1845, when new technology (the addition of bromine fumes to the process) reduced exposure times to a few seconds. A more plausible story is that people weren't used to having their pictures taken -- the expense and seriousness of the occasion (getting quite possibly the only photograph you'd ever have of yourself) led people to adopt a serious pose.

When were daguerreotypes popular? Although they're well known today (possibly due to Brady's Civil War images), daguerreotypes were merely one of several competing formats in nineteenth-century photography. They were introduced by Louis Daguerre in 1839 and remained popular into the 1860's. Because daguerreotypes developed a positive image directly onto the photographic plate, there was no way to reproduce them without sitting for multiple shots (there was no negative). This, combined with the expense, fragility, and technical difficulty of the process led to competitors including:

  • Calotype - which used paper negatives
  • Ambrotype - which produced a ghostly positive glass image that was then backed with black paper to produce a complete photograph
  • Tintype - which was durable (being printed on a plate of metal) and thus popular during the Civil War for soldiers in the field

Does anyone still make daguerreotypes today? Yes, though it's a complex and potentially toxic process. The Contemporary Daguerreotypes site (warning: a few tasteful nudes are included) features the work of modern daguerreotypists. See also: The Daguerreian Society, which has an excellent Daguerreotype FAQ with tips on preservation and much more.

Are there daguerreotype images online? I'm so glad you asked, rhetorical question-voice. Check out America's First Look into the Camera from the Library of Congress (including lots of Mathew Brady material). Also try The Daguerreian Society's searchable daguerreotype database or Daguerreotypes at Harvard. Finally, searching Google Images for "daguerreotype" turns up a variety of fun stuff.