American Daguerreotype Photography

American Daguerreotype of artist Sheila Alden rendered in a “faux daguerreotype” style.
American Daguerreotype of artist Sheila Alden rendered in a “faux daguerreotype” style.

A Photograph in the Traditions of Nineteenth Century Photography

By the Victorian era, the stage was set for widespread, rapid acceptance of photography. Americans were fascinated with mechanical devices and familiar with cheap popular lithographs, like those published by Currier and Ives. By 1839 two types of photography had been developed, both of which gained international attention. William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman invented a process that produced images called Talbotypes, or calotypes. A Frenchman, Louis Mandé Daguerre was one of the inventors of the daguerreotype process. Early in 1839, Daguerre announced his discovery and exhibited examples at the scientific world fair of Paris. Soon the American Daguerreotype was accepted with open arms.

Traditional, as well as current styles of painting formed the visual aesthetic standards for this new media. By the end of 1839, technological advancements made photography a viable medium for capturing images of landscapes, buildings, current events, portraits and other themes, all of which were rendered by the unerring eye of the camera. Of these subjects, portraiture was arguably the most popular. In the tradition of nineteenth-century photography, I shot a picture of myself that chronicles my vocation as an artist.

This photograph is similar in appearance to a daguerreotype, which was one of the more popular forms of photography. By 1850, nearly 3,000,000 daguerreotypes were produced each year, of which approximately 95 percent were portraits.

American Daguerreotype Popularity

Americans were familiar with costly painted portraits and engravings. Both of which were beyond the means of most people, and restricted to the upper classes. When the American daguerreotype was introduced in New York City in 1939, it caught the interest of entrepreneurs who saw its potential.

The daguerreotype process requires exposure to bright light, which in those days was sunlight. Thus making them dependent on atmospheric conditions. Initially, lengthy exposure time required people to sit still, holding their pose for up to 15 minutes. By the end of 1839, advancements in the chemical processes resulted in exposure time decreased to approximately 20 seconds. Other improvements were also made, including comfortable studios, fancy cases and studio props. These improvements enabled daguerreotype portrait taking to become viable as a business. These portraits became tremendously popular, their low cost appealed to the middle class, and by the mid 1850s the cost of a daguerreotype was as little as twenty-five cents. Virtually anyone could afford to have his/her picture taken; the economic barrier imposed by expensive hand painted portraits was removed. The camera democratized images; affordable pictures were taken without artists contributing their prejudices or idealizations.

These portraits depicted every flaw, wrinkle and blemish, nothing was hidden, everything was revealed in sharp detail. Americans desired truth in art and the realism of nature. They got this in the early photograph. These daguerreotypes were reverse images, like a person’s view of himself in the mirror, thus very personal. This may have accounted for the fact that daguerreotypes were more popular for portraits rather than other subjects such as places, buildings and anything with writing on it, such as a sign. If reversed these things would look backwards to those who were familiar with them.

Faux American Daguerreotype Created Using Digital Camera

As a graphic designer, I use today’s media including a digital camera, to create digital artwork. However, I also create art using traditional media, such as watercolors and oil paints. I elected to represent the “traditional media me” in this photo because it is more in keeping with the nature of the project. American painting styles have traditionally been naturalistic and/or realistic. Popular mid nineteenth century painting motifs included landscapes and genre paintings. During the mid-nineteenth century genre paintings often portrayed people at work or surrounded by the tools of their trade. An excellent example of this is John Singleton Copley’s occupational portrait of Paul Revere. With the advent of photography, it was only natural some people would choose to be photographed in a similar manner.

A house plant on a garden column, a milk crate (unseen, used as seat) covered with a small oriental carpet, one of my watercolor paintings and myself comprised the composition. A lab coat which was as close to an artist’s smock as could be found. I held the tools of my trade in my hands — a paintbrush and palette. I included the column to symbolize my affinity to the classics. Columns were often used as props by daguerreotypists; their presence indicated the sitter’s knowledge of the classics, which implied a higher social status.

Daguerreotype And Natural Light

I shot my photo outside in order to capture the natural light. I set my scene up in our yard, in front of the fence, which I covered with a large tablecloth. Then turned my Canon Digital Rebel’s flash off, and as daguerreotypists often did, I secured it onto a tripod. After prefocusing the camera, I set the automatic timer. After experimenting with a number of compositions, taking many test pictures, until I finally got what I was looking for. I also took a picture of my husband’s great grandfather’s Civil War daguerreotype, which I used as the case for my picture.

I loaded my best photo into my computer and brought it up in Adobe Photoshop software, for the final touches. Daguerreotypes are innately black and white unless otherwise hand-colored, so I converted it to grayscale. I applied some sharpening to the image, in an effort to mimic the crisp details daguerreotypes are so famous for.  I also used the software to horizontally flop the image so it would be a mirror view. Then I inserted my finished photo into the case, again using Photoshop software.

In the manner of mid nineteenth century photography the resulting picture represents my physical attributes in stark realism, and announces my profession as an artist, which allows the viewer insight into my place in society. Also in keeping with the 19th century outlook, this aspect of my personality tends to be introspective, and this “daguerreotype” provides a deeply personal assessment of me.

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