Silver and Sunlight: The Science of Early Photography

Daguerreotype of the 1843 Nantes flood

Daguerreotype of the 1843 Nantes flood by an unknown photographer. Courtesy of Charles Isaacs Photographs, inc., New York.

Though Gaudin was not a professional scientist or artist, he and many others who rushed to try the new medium possessed a wide range of technical skills. Before industrialization became widespread later in the 19th century, many everyday items and specialized tools were still made by artisans in small- or medium-sized workshops in large cities and towns. Paris was home to hundreds of such workshops, along with thousands of merchants selling all kinds of goods. This ready availability of know-how, tools, and materials enabled the rapid spread of the daguerreotype. Daguerre’s first instructional pamphlet, an instant best-seller, was soon joined by dozens of other publications announcing modifications to the process. An 1842 Paris commercial directory listed nearly two pages of scientific instrument makers (including some who were already specializing in daguerreotype cameras, plates, and other apparatus), in addition to two pages of opticians and spectacle makers. The necessary chemicals—for the most part ordinary (if perhaps noxious) substances, such as silver salts, mercury, and iodine—could be purchased at any pharmacist’s shop or from dozens of purveyors of “chemical products.”

In some ways the daguerreotype was one of the original open-source communication systems, long predating the computer age. Thanks to the foresight of Arago and the French government, the “source code” was freely available. Prominent chemist and physicist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac had predicted this outcome in 1839: “Possessed by a single person, [the process] would remain stationary for a long time, and perhaps would die away; but being made public, it will thrive and improve through the efforts of all.”

Wet collodion process

Both daguerreotype and calotype methods of image making were replaced in the 1850s by the wet collodion process. 
From G. Tissandier, A History and Handbook of Photograph, 1878.

Within months many improvements were introduced: more sensitive chemicals, better fixing methods, faster lenses, smaller and more portable cameras, streamlined processing techniques. There was one exception to this swift progress: England, where Daguerre had patented his process. This controversial move, which seemed to violate the spirit of the French law granting the daguerreotype to the world, was parallel to Talbot’s own decision to patent his paper calotype process, restricting its commercial use to those who paid a licensing fee. As a result the daguerreotype was relatively uncommon in England, and the calotype process had a limited reach in Great Britain and elsewhere, even though Talbot’s negative-positive method later became the basis of modern photography.

The daguerreotype quickly became a worldwide sensation and was especially popular in the United States. Though French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire condemned “our squalid society” that “rushed . . . to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal,” the new process meant that portraiture was no longer restricted to those wealthy enough to employ their own painter. Now millions of people could cheaply and quickly possess detailed images of themselves and their loved ones.

The reign of the unique silvery image, however, lasted less than two decades. The wet-collodion process introduced in 1851, which used glass negatives and paper prints, combined the sharp detail of the daguerreotype with the reproducibility of the calotype. It soon supplanted both methods and was itself replaced by dry-plate processes, then by film negatives, and eventually by digital imaging. Even today, although digital images are paramount, thousands of photographers have returned to historical methods, creating their own handcrafted daguerreotypes and calotypes. As they watch their pictures emerging into the light, they experience the same sense of wonder as did the first photographers.

Jane E. Boyd, Ph.D., is an art historian specializing in the visual culture of technology and science in the 19th century. Boyd works as an independent curator and freelance writer and editor in the Philadelphia area. She would like to thank Joseph Rucker for his assistance with this article.