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The Daguerreotype

The word photography was first used in the year 1839 - the year the invention of the photographic process was made public. During the prior decades, a number of light-sensitive materials were tested to capture the image from the camera obscura, but the first successful permanent photograph is usually credited to Louis Daguerre. That picture, captured on a silver-coated sheet of copper, using his 'positive image' Daguerreotype process, is entitled The Artist's Studio and is dated 1837. It was fragile & difficult to reproduce. Not all people welcomed the Daguerreotype a photographic process invented by Daguerre which was made public on 19 August 1839, some pundits viewed in quite sinister terms. A newspaper report in the Leipzig City Advertiser stated:

"The wish to capture evanescent reflections is not only impossible... but the mere desire alone, the will to do so, is blasphemy. God created man in His own image, and no man- made machine may fix the image of God. Is it possible that God should have abandoned His eternal principles, and allowed a Frenchman... to give to the world an invention of the Devil?"

At that time some artists saw in photography a threat to their livelihood (see Artists and Photography ), and some even prophesied that painting would cease to exist.

The Daguerreotype process, though good, was expensive, and each picture was a once-only affair. That, to many, would not have been regarded as a disadvantage; it meant that the owner of the portrait could be certain that he had a piece of art that could not be duplicated. If however two copies were required, the only way of coping with this was to use two cameras side by side. There was, therefore, a growing need for a means of copying pictures which daguerreotypes could never satisfy.

Different, and in a sense a rival to the Daguerreotype, was the Calotype invented by William Henry Fox Talbot , which was to provide the answer to that problem. His paper to the Royal Society of London, dated 31 January 1839, actually precedes the paper by Daguerre; it was entitled "Some account of the Art of Photogenic drawing, or the process by which natural objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the artist's pencil." He wrote:

"How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed on the paper!"

The earliest paper negative we know of was produced in August 1835; it depicts the now famous window at Lacock Abbey, his home. The negative is small (1" square), and poor in quality, compared with the striking images produced by the Daguerreotype process. By 1840, however, Talbot had made some significant improvements, and by 1844 he was able to bring out a photographically illustrated book entitled "The Pencil of nature."

Compared with Daguerreotypes the quality of the early Calotypes was somewhat inferior. (See comments on Claudet). However, the great advantage of Talbot's method was that an unlimited number of positive prints could be made (see also Brewster ). In fact, today's photography is based on the same principle, whereas by comparison the Daguerreotype, for all its quality, was a blind alley.

The mushrooming of photographic establishments reflects photography's growing popularity; from a mere handful in the mid 1840s the number had grown to 66 in 1855, and to 147 two years later. In London, a favourite venue was Regent Street where, in the peak in the mid 'sixties there were no less than forty-two photographic establishments! In America the growth was just as dramatic: in 1850 there were 77 photographic galleries in New York alone. The demand for photographs was such that Charles Baudelaire (1826-1867), a well known poet of the period and a critic of the medium, commented:

"our squalid society has rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gloat at its trivial image on a scrap of metal."