January 7, 1839:
Something happened on this day in the French Académie des Sciences that would forever change the terrain of visual representation. Change Photography. Change our sense of time. And in turn, our sense of ourselves. It was the first time that the process to make a daguerreotype was made public. A curious mixture of art and science, the process danced around solar rays kissing the surface of a silver plated sheet of copper. With the ritualistic iodine vapours and mercury fumes twirling around to transcend it to the divine. And Sodium thiosulphate (salt water) anchoring it back to reality.
A proud and magnificent ancestor of our present day DSLR cameras, the Daguerreotype satisfied our ancient quest to see our own image. It was the first time that we experienced a kind of tautology for the eyes. A reiteration of reality on a sheet of copper. Never before had this project of representation surpassed such limits of details and accuracy.
And we had one man to thank for it: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Painter. Printmaker. Inventor of the Diorama. Like a saint in search for his salvation, Daguerre was in search for something that improved upon the Camera Obscura, a wooden box with lens which showered an image on a glass sheet at another end. Daguerre found a partner in this search in 1829 in Nicéphore Niépce. Both of them were looking for permanence in the image, a shift away from the temporary reflections that the camera obscura produced back in that day. And this permanence was to be achieved through the amalgamation of light and chemistry. Daguerre continued walking on this path of experimentation till 1838. He finally showed the results of his new medium to Francois Arago, a well known astronomer, member of the French legislature and an ardent admirer of art. Championing Daguerre’s medium, he ensured that the inventor got lifetime pension in exchange for relinquishing his rights over the medium.
August 19, 1839:
Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts sat together in a joint session to witness the grand spectacle of this magical process. It was almost like an overflowing theatre, where the spectators drenched in their curiosity spilled on over to the courtyard outside. Daguerrian images soon became expressions of art and science when they started capturing still life compositions of plaster casts as well as fossils and shells. Hippolyte Gaucheraud, a journalist gorgeously described these images as giving a truth to the world that Nature alone previously could. The marvel that was the daguerreotype gave sharper and more defined images with an initial exposure time of 10-15 minutes, something that seems to be almost unimaginable in the current times. One of the first daguerreotype images was the ‘Paris Boulevard’ taken by Daguerre himself.
After the process was put in the public domain by the French government, the world fell wildly in love with it. Theodore Maurisset, a caricaturist from Paris, drew a lithograph called ‘La Daguerreotypomanie’ reeking of his imaginary world crawling with daguerreotypists and a public burning with blind excitement while waiting in long lines to get their photograph taken. This lithograph was not too far from reality. The world had really been taken over by a madness and a fanaticism reflecting the civilisation’s infatuation to see its own image.
Charles Baudelaire famously remarked that this was the moment our ‘squalid society’ was rushing like ‘Narcissus to a man’ to gaze at our own trivial image on a metal scrap. He saw photography as an invasion and an impoverishment of French art. According to him exact representation could never be true art. The latter belonged to the world of the impalpable and the imaginary. The beautiful and the ethereal could never be blurred with the mechanical. Photography and the daguerreotype were precisely the symbols of the great and ugly industrial spectacle of those times.
However, there was something deeper about why the daguerreotype had the effect that it did. Portraits were the principal forms in which this medium got manifested. And that satiated our desire and longing for significance. It was people’s way of attaining permanence and immortality. Commissioning a painted portrait of friends and family, till then, was something that millions could not even dream of. The elitism of a portrait had diluted and made way to the masses like liquid magna, burning golden red, with their dreams and aspirations and transformed sense of identities.
Artists. Scientists. Explorers. Archeologists. Everyone playfully indulged in this adventure to posterity. Painters, being the most prescient of the lot, understood the true significance of this invention and its potential in art. Scientists harnessed it to microscopes and telescopes, marvelling in its unparalleled capacity to excavate the details from the object before its lens. Travellers soon realised its magical ability to forever capture the unexplored territories and sceneries and bring these landscapes and boulevards back home through images. The plates these explorers brought back are still one of the most treasured archives of the first time we laid eyes on previously unexplored parts of the globe. They are the archives of our wanderlust.
While the era of the daguerreotypes ended in France with the coming of photography on paper in the 1850s, on the other side of the world in the United States, this was exactly the time it gloriously flourished. All because of one man: Francis Gouraud.
Like the wild gypsy and inventor, Melquíades from ‘Hundred Years of Solitude’ who exclaims to José Arcadio Buendía I: “Things have a life of their own”, Gourard sailed the seas to introduce Daguerre’s invention to a new land, infusing it with a new life through his demonstrations and lectures in Boston.
Lured into daguerreotypes through a fascination gained from Gourard’s displays was Samuel F.B Morse. He followed his curiosity to learn this art from the inventor himself. Albert Sands Southworth went to work with Morse in 1840 and created his own studio within a year. Later, Josia Johnson Hawes joined Southworth and this went on to become the famous nineteen year old partnership of ‘Southworth and Hawes’. Their studio and firm accumulated fame around the world and soon became a favourite of the elites and the connoisseurs for its balanced mastery of technical finesse and aesthetic. They went on to produce daguerreotype portraits of America’s leading figures. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson being a few of them.
Mathew Brady, a huge name in the American daguerreotypist circle also learned the intricacies of this process from Morse and opened his studio in 1844 and went on to photograph movie stars and presidents.
While cultural icons like Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe praised the coming of the daguerreotypes by calling them “miraculous beauties” and “photogenic drawings of absolute truth”, amidst all of the craze and fever that had caught this country, one found a weirdly interesting critic in Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, who had attended Gourard’s presentations in Boston. He scathingly voiced his distaste for this new medium in his novel ‘Pierre’ in which the lead character is also an author and is hounded by his publisher to get his daguerreotype taken so that it can be produced on the cover of the book. The character explodes at this crassness when he says, “To the devil with you and your Daguerreotype!”. Melville similarly expressed his personal hatred in a letter to one of his colleagues where he said, “Almost everybody is having his ’mug’ engraved nowadays; so that this test of distinction is going to be reversed; and therefore, to see one’s ‘mug’ in a magazine, is presumptive evidence that he’s a nobody…I respectfully decline being oblivionated.”
Despite what the likes of Baudelaire and Melville voiced, the Daguerreotype stood at the intersection of a momentous social transformation. Self-Representation in the form of portraiture, excluded so far from a large variety of groups was now rendered swiftly to them. The daguerreotype gave the carpenter, the seamstress, the actor, the goldminer and every common man and woman the possibility to see their image and through that leave behind an intimate legacy of their anonymous lives. And herein lay its true beauty.