Long Before the Age of the iPhone

It is strange to think that there are many people in this generation who will not photograph with and develop their own film, let alone understand the extensive history behind the modern day digital camera. There are many more that would be blown away by the thought of a daguerreotype – an image formed on a silver-coated copper plate using silver iodine and mercury – just as many people in the age of the daguerreotype would be blown away by the thought of a portable phone that doubled as a camera.


The image above is what a typical daguerreotype camera looked like, back when it was invented in 1839 by a man named Louis Daguerre. Daguerre played off of the even more historic idea of a camera obscura (the image below), which was initially a way to project an image onto a surface for the purpose of tracing or drawing. The “camera” has a small pinhole on one side which allows light to pass through, hit a surface inside, and project onto a wall or other surface. Joseph Nicephore Niepce was able to use this technique along with a metal plate coated in bitumen to create the first actual photograph produced by the camera obscura. However, his version required up to eight hours of exposure time and faded after a couple of minutes.


Louis Daguerre perfected Niepsce’s technique by finding out that bathing the plate in a solution of silver chloride allowed the image to stay permanently fixed to the plate. Thus, the daguerreotype was born. Initially the exposure time was over ten minutes long, which resulted in this method only being used for landscapes and still lifes, such as the photograph below.


Eventually, Daguerre perfected his technique so that exposure time was less than five minutes. You should recognize the photograph below as a portrait of a very influential American president. This portrait of Abraham Lincoln was taken using the daguerreotype method, which required subjects to sit still for approximately three minutes in good light. This explains why a lot of antique photographs you see portray subjects as being stiff and lifeless; they had to sit still for long periods of time, so their faces were devoid of emotion and their bodies remained in one rigid position.


Can you imagine taking photographs this way? The painstaking process of prepping each metal plate (buffering, exposing to chemical fumes to make it light sensitive, loading it into the camera), then hoping that your subject stays still for the amount of time you need to expose the photograph for. The resulting image cannot be reproduced; it is completely one of a kind.


You may also come across colored daguerreotypes, which were hand-colored by the photographer to create more lifelike portraits. Far before color film, far before the age of digital photography, those who created images were all truly artists. Their images were carefully planned and developed with the utmost patience and perfection.
The next time you whip out your phone to take a photograph, think about how far technology has come in the production of images. There was a day and age where the thought of a digital camera didn’t even cross anyone’s mind; each photograph was thought out and planned down to every last detail before preserving that image forever. Think about it: what aspects of your life would you capture if you could only photograph using the daguerreotype method?