I went to school for photography and learned about daguerreotypes during this time of massive and monumentally beautiful creative explosion. Daguerreotypes were one of those things that, like photography itself, just got under my skin (in a good way), and took over, forever more, holding me captive in a prison of passionate and agonizing inspiration. I love this medium so much it actually hurts sometimes.
If you have never seen a daguerreotype in person, start from there and see if you feel the same as I do. You won’t find these just anywhere. You will have to go to a museum and you might even want to do some research ahead of time because not all museums put these on display. But just like a painting, it’s a completely different experience when you view the object in person, and you absolutely must.
Mathew Brady, operated by Luther Boswell. Jenny Lind, 1852. Sixth-plate daguerreotype. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, Purchase, partial gift of Kathryn K. Porter and Charles and Judy Hudson, 89.75. Image borrowed from here.
The process of making a daguerreotype is so involved—and actually somewhat dangerous—that it’s not really done anymore. There are a few modern and edgy photographers who have set up their studios to facilitate the creation of these remarkable pieces, but they are rare. However, this used to be the only way to take photographs. The process involves an overwhelming kit of equipment and requires lots of time, delicate attention to detail, the handling of hazardous chemicals, and heaps of patience. But oh, is it worth it!
Here are a few defining characteristics of daguerreotypes:
First, the image is made on a metallic plate, so there is a luminescent, reflective, silvery quality to every image. And speaking of every image, they are similar to Polaroids in that they are each a one of a kind original. This process is not like film photography in which you shoot a roll of film, creating a negative reversed version of an image, and then print a positive version of that negative onto coated paper or some other light-sensitive surface. With film photography, you can mass produce images and use the negative over and over again to print as many versions of the exact same image as you like. But since each daguerreotype is always a one-of-a-kind, in my opinion, that elevates its place in the art world and sets it apart from photography in general—not that I have one shred of a problem with photography in general, it is my one true love.
Another incredible quality about a daguerreotype is its variation in focus. If you examine one of these images closely, you will never find any version of a photograph sharper than a daguerreotype. And yet, at the same time, parts of the image can go out of focus, become soft and fuzzy, and less defined and unevenly blurred, giving the entire final product a truly rich, multi-tiered, mysterious, unpredictable, and very emotional quality (again very similar to a Polaroid).
[There are so many similarities between a Polaroid and a daguerreotype, I could probably write an entire post on this, and probably will in the near future.]
Expired polaroid. Is this not the most beautiful thing you have ever seen? Photo credit unknown.
Yet another defining feature of a daguerreotype is its casing (also just like a Polaroid…okay, I’ll stop). A daguerreotype is made from a photographic plate that is essentially a fragile piece of glass, painstakingly buffed and then coated with light-sensitive chemicals. So, in order to keep these delicate plates safe, a casing was built around each one, giving its object-ness a profoundly acute level of preciousness. When it comes to discussing daguerreotypes, we are not really talking about photographs, we are actually talking about priceless unique objects, as exquisite as heirloom jewelry. These objects then just happen to act as vehicles for illustrating the distinctive features of living, breathing human beings—the most precious objects on earth.
[Here I could go off into a tangent about the microcosm of the macrocosm, but I won’t.]
Montgomery P. Simons, attr. Algernon Sydney Roberts. Quarter-plate daguerreotype. Philadelphia, 1848. Image borrowed from here.
Finally (of course there is always more, but I need to reel it in at some point), one of the most distinctive qualities about a daguerreotype is its creepiness. Each image has a very funeral home, vacant, ghostly, frigid kind of energy permeating throughout. This is understandable, given that the subject matter (the human being) had to hold still for a long period of time—the photographer often placed a hook-like crutch behind a person’s neck so his or her head would not move and cause the image to blur—so many of these people are actually quite uncomfortable, and perhaps wishing they were dead, hence the eerie funeral home vibe. Also, I think that the people in these images were not very acquainted with the modern-day concepts of vanity and material beauty, so sitting in front of a camera most likely made them feel a bit self-conscious. With every daguerreotype I have ever seen, the person staring back at me always projects a profound innocence that is almost visceral. They (the people and the daguerreotypes equally) are simply beautiful.
In an attempt to honor and express my own devoted passion to this rather heart-breakingly inaccessible medium, several years back, I endeavored to create my own version of self-portrait daguerreotypes. I made these objects using a scanner bed, and then printed the images on transparent acetate, sandwiching them between clear glass and a piece of wood covered with metallic décor. Finally, I encased each precious package with copper tape. They are actually quite incredible. It’s difficult to see in these images but they are iridescent in appearance, very precious- and jewelry-like in their metallic object-ness, and truly creepy in nature.
I hope you enjoy and I hope you explore! Go out into the world and find that thing that is so beautiful and incredible to you that it makes you kind of ache for it.
I kept the dust for effect. Kind of creepy, right? © Libby Saylor
In case you can’t tell, my lips are at the top © Libby Saylor
© Libby Saylor