What is a daguerreotype?

Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre is hailed as a pioneer of photography – but the process of ‘light writing’ was not a new thing by the time he invented his daguerreotypes. Written by Emily Bright

What is a daguerreotype? (public domain)

Several different people were experimenting with chemicals and plating in order to produce an image throughout the 19th century, but with mixed success.

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It was not really until Frenchman Louis Daguerre, an opera scene painter, that the first effective form of photography was fully developed.

As he experimented in the 1820s, Daguerre became aware of a man exploring a similar area of interest, Joseph-Nicephore Niépce. He believed that he could use light to create inked plates, which could be printed to reproduce scenes accurately.

The two men collaborated for some years before Niépce died in 1833. Then in 1837, Daguerre had a breakthrough. He developed Niépce’s process of heliography and discovered that by treating an iodized silver plate, which had been exposed to light, with mercury vapour and a salt solution, a permanent image was created much more quickly.

As a result of its distinctive differences to his partner’s model, he named it after himself, the daguerreotype.

Thanks to his invention, portrait studios became popular with the wealthy, desiring immortality in film. The daguerreotype spread throughout France, with instruction manuals published in many different languages.

It also became popular in the United States, where it became a flourishing industry.

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Before long, however, an English scientist’s invention soon overshadowed this form of photography. William Henry Fox Talbot began developing prints from negatives in 1839 and by the late 1850s, other less expensive forms of photography were available, pushing poor Louis out of the market.