Early photographs: Daguerreotypes

Editorial Staff Art

The striking portrait on the right, offered by Dennis A. Waters Fine Daguerreotypes, of Exeter, New Hampshire, is of one R. F. Jameson, who was a month short of his twentieth birthday when he sat before an unknown daguerreotypist’s camera in Montrose, Pennsylvania, in October 1846. We know nothing more about him, but his image certainly grabs you. First there are the captivating eyes (the liveliness of the eyes is characteristic of most daguerreotype portraits). Then there is the startling clarity of the determined face, which, framed by long hair, seems remarkably modern, not to mention lifelike, thanks also to the superb hand-tinting. Indeed, this exceptional clarity is part of the daguerreotype’s hypnotic appeal. “As a professional photographer, I have to say that Daguerre’s invention achieved a sharpness that has never been surpassed in photographic history,” Waters says.

The longer you examine the picture, the more it suggests about young Jameson’s ambitions, if not his ultimate destiny. Daguerreotype photography was less than a decade old at the time this image was captured, and it had already developed its own conventions. The book and table, for instance, had already become standard props of the photographer’s studio. But this picture moves beyond convention and has far more to tell us: the natty plaid bow tie, plaid waistcoat, and checked trousers convey Jameson’s awareness of current trends for bold patterns in men’s attire, although the M-notches of his coat lapels bespeak men’s fashion of the 1820s and 1830s—so perhaps the coat was a retailored hand-me-down. But more important, the microscope, undoubtedly Jameson’s prize possession, and rarely depicted in a daguerreotype, emphatically conveys his calling or avocation. Moreover, that bookcase crowded with leather bindings, whose sheen signifies careful maintenance with regular applications of lanolin, is also not a typical photographer’s prop. In fact, the somewhat careless hanging of the cloth backdrop suggests that this portrait sitting was improvised in Jameson’s own house, or possibly his university lodgings, rather than a professional studio, which adds to its rarity.

Whatever the facts about R. F. Jameson, his portrait—a 2 ¾ by 3 ¼-inch “sixth-plate” size, and expertly restored to pristine condition—is a superb example of the daguerreotypist’s art. Priced at $15,000, it exemplifies why this earliest method of photography is growing in appeal to collectors.

Another handsome, gently hand-tinted portrait in the Waters inventory is more accessibly priced at $495 because as an image it is less unusual and has some minor blemishes (image below). The identity of this dapper, self-possessed adolescent is unknown, but we do know that he sat for the New York daguerreotypist Silas A. Holmes sometime between 1850 and 1859. The dating is based on the business address stamped on the matting, the period when Holmes worked, and the boy’s clothing. And, like the Jameson image, the fellow in this one also seems ready to speak to us over the centuries.

Although the principle that light passing through a small aperture into a dark room would project a clear, upside-down image on an opposite wall was known as early as the tenth century or before, it was not until the announcement of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s invention in 1839 that the world knew of a practical method of actually making a permanent photograph. The heyday of daguerreotypes would last until around 1860, when it was superseded by tintypes and paper prints from glass negatives.

Daguerreotypes began with a thin sheet of cold-rolled silver fused to a base plate of copper and buffed to a mirror sheen. This silver mirror was exposed to iodine fumes to form a light-sensitive coating of silver iodide. With the plate mounted in a camera, the daguerreotypist carefully posed his portrait subject and made his exposure by removing the cover of the camera lens for minutes on end. Even after discoveries that the addition of bromine or chlorine vapors made the coating more sensitive, the exposure time was minutes rather than seconds, and the sitter had to remain absolutely still for the duration. The exposed plate was then treated with fumes of heated mercury to render the image visible. To make it permanent, the plate was washed in a hyposulfite of soda solution to remove superfluous silver iodide.

The result is an image in which the lighter areas are formed by the gray-white deposit of silver-mercury amalgam, while the shadows and darker areas are formed by the polished silver surface itself, but only when you hold the finished plate at an angle reflecting a dark ground. Hence daguerreotypes were popularly called “mirrors with a memory,” and this ephemeral quality adds to their appeal. In many cases the image was then delicately hand tinted with watercolors, further enhancing the lifelike quality.

Each daguerreotype is as unique as a drawing
Because daguerreotypes are essentially sensitized silver mirrors they preserve a mirror image of the subject, which, Waters says, is another reason the portraits are often so startlingly lifelike to us. “We are so used to seeing ourselves daily in mirrors,” he observes, “that we have this visceral response to these mirror images. There is something extraordinarily familiar about reversed features, even when we don’t know the sitters personally.” Because the image was captured directly on the plate, with no intervening negative from which multiple prints could be made, each daguerreotype is as unique as a drawing—the solitary physical embodiment of the specific moment at which it was exposed.

The market
Daguerreotypes exist in sufficient numbers to sustain a growing market. And since this market is still relatively young, many attractive examples—including portraits, landscapes, city views and related images-are accessibly priced, running from several hundred dollars to thousands dependent on various criteria, including the appeal of the subject (obviously famous historical figures carry their own premium), physical condition—both of the image itself and of its case—and size. According to material on the Web site of the Daguerreian Society, a whole plate is approximately 6 ½ by 8 ½ inches, a sixth-plate (the most common size) is 2 ¾ by 3 ¼ inches, a sixteenth-plate 1 3⁄8 by 1 5⁄8 inches, with other sizes in between.

 ❖  If you want to buy these collectible pieces you need to be knowledgeable. Among the standard references: Beaumont Newhall, The Daguerreotype in America (Dover, New York, 1976); Floyd and Marion Rinhart, The American Daguerreotype (University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1981); and The Daguerreotype: A Sesquicentennial Celebration, ed. John Wood (University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1989).

The Web site www.eastmanhouse.org/icp/index.html is an invaluable resource devoted to a huge exhibition entitled Young America, the Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes, mounted in 2005 by the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, and the International Center for Photography, New York.

❖  You need to examine daguerreotypes at first hand to be able to recognize the difference between “dags” (as they are called in collector circles) and other photographic mediums, such as calotypes (emulsion on paper from a paper negative), ambrotypes (emulsion on glass), and tintypes (emulsion on a blackened metal sheet).

❖  Important dealers: Dennis Waters Fine Dagureotypes, www.finedags.com. Greg French Early Photography, www.gregfrenchearlyphotography.com. Dan Hadley, My Dags, www.mydags.com. William Schaeffer—Photographs, Chester, Connecticut, telephone 860-526-3870. Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs, New York, telephone 212-794-2064 or e-mail info@sunpictures.com.

❖  Consider joining the Daguerreian Society (www.daguerre.org). Their annual symposium is the premiere event for collectors. This year’s will be held November 5 to 8 in Philadelphia.

❖  Apart from storing your collection in low light, low humidity, and generally careful archival conditions, the most important rule for collectors is, never try to repair, retape, or otherwise restore daguerreotypes yourself. Always seek professional archival restoration through dealers or through the Daguer­reian Society.

Portrait of R. F. Jameson (b. 1826) by an unknown maker, 1846. Hand-tinted sixth-plate daguerreotype. Photograph by courtesy of Dennis A. Waters Fine Daguerreotypes, Exeter, New Hampshire; Portrait of a young man by Silas A. Holmes (c. 1820-1886), 1850-1859. Hand-tinted sixth-plate daguerreotype. Waters photograph.