“There is, at least, no flattery in my humble line of art. Now, here is a likeness which I have taken over and over again, and still with no better result. Yet the original wears, to common eyes, a very different expression.” The House of the Seven Gables (1851).
What Nathaniel Hawthorne is referring to is the daguerreotype, an early photographic process that used iodine vapors to sensitize plates of polished silver. The invention of French commercial artist Louis Daguerre, his marketing efforts to sell licenses to the French public for his new invention were initially unrewarded.
Fortunately, Daguerre had one supporter, Francois Argo, a respected member of the Academy of Sciences. Argo convinced the French government to compensate Daguerre directly. The revolutionary new photographic process was announced before the Academy of Sciences on August 13, 1839 as France’s gift to the world – with the exception of British subjects. Daguerre had patented his invention in England just days before, likely fueled by competition between the two countries; Daguerre’s process was announced about the same time as England’s William Fox Talbot introduced his photographic method using a negative.
Although the use of negatives in photography would eventually become the norm, in 1840s and 1850s America, the daguerreotype had little competition, especially in the area of private portraiture. Until the daguerreotype, portraits and miniatures were considered luxuries for the rich.
The daguerreotype’s rise to popularity was further enhanced in 1840, when a simplified process was patented by Alexander Wolcott of New York. The improved camera reduced the lengthy exposure time, and featured an ingenious lighting system developed by Wolcott’s partner, John Johnson. That same year, Wolcott opened the world’s first professional photography studio in New York City.
New York, along with Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco and New Orleans quickly grew to be the epicenter of a burgeoning new industry, although most major cities were well-represented. By 1850, there were more than 10,000 daguerreotypists in the United States. In 1853, The New York Daily Tribune estimated that three million daguerreotypes were being made annually.
Not all daguerreotypists had the benefit of a permanent studio, but there were plenty of clients to go around. Many images found today were made by itinerant photographers, who traveled in horse-drawn carriages, visiting rural areas and smaller towns in the tradition of the traveling salesman or portrait-painter.
The daguerreotype, however, was not without its faults. The photographic process itself was painstakingly slow. Sitters were often clamped into head braces to hold themselves still, and dogs were reported to have been given shots of whiskey, all in the attempt to reduce the frequency of blurred images.
The image itself was another issue. The reflections from the mirror-like plate (similar to a holograph) created viewing difficulties. The highly polished metal was delicate and needed to be covered by protective glass encased in a frame. It was also difficult to make in larger sizes. The most common size, known as a sixth-plate, measured only 2 3/4 inches by 3 1/4 inches.
Today, prices for daguerreotypes range from $25 to $100 for a typical portrait of a man or woman – the most common examples found – to in excess of $100,000 for images of historical importance. One such example is a full-plate of San Francisco sold in May 2004 by Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. for $143,500.
Also sought after are occupational studies, and images of dogs. In October 2002, Skinner, Inc. sold an exceptional dog daguerreotype for $6,463. (All prices include buyer’s premium).
“The value of a daguerreotype is dictated by three factors: subject matter, size and most especially condition,” said Auctioneer Wesley Cowan. “Daguerreotypes are very sensitive to damage – they can be marred just by putting your finger on it. The biggest mistake someone can make is trying to clean a daguerreotype. I have seen many images obliterated by someone’s attempts to polish the silver.”
The heyday of the daguerreotype was short-lived. The beginning of the end came in 1854, with the patenting of the ambrotype, a less expensive photographic process. This was quickly followed by the tintype patent in 1856. Although the images produced were clearly inferior to the daguerreotype, the lightweight tintype was embraced by soldiers in the Civil War, who took photos of loved ones with them to war, and left their own images behind. Almost as quickly as the daguerreotype had risen to fame, it became obsolete.
The shift towards renewed public recognition began in October 1995, when Sotheby’s sold a half-plate of the United States Capitol, circa 1846, for a (then) world record price of $189,500. Other auction sales followed. One of the most significant was The David Feigenbaum Collection, which included 240 daguerreotypes from the renowned Boston partnership of Southworth & Hawes. The sale totaled $3.3 million with the cover lot, Two Women Posed with a Chair, selling for a (then) world record price of $387,500.
While that may seem like an incredible sum, especially in today’s times of cheap and easy digital photography, most experts agree that even with today’s technological advances, no photographic process has ever come close to the clarity, depth and quality of an image achieved by an accomplished daguerreotypist.
“While many examples available are simply ordinary portraiture, on a great daguerreotype you can look into the subject’s pupils and actually see reflections,” said Cowan. “It doesn’t happen that often, but every now and again, I’ll open up a case and my breath will catch in my throat. It’s what I call the wow-factor.”
Recognizing Early Photography
Daguerreotype: The image has a reflective, mirror-like appearance, similar to the small hologram found on a credit card. Like the hologram, the daguerreotype’s image is only visible from certain angles. Timeline: 1839-1860.
Ambrotype: Images are on glass, and have a low contrast, grayish-white appearance. Most were protected by enclosing the fragile glass plate in a small wooden, leather or early thermoplastic case. Timeline: 1855-1862.
Tintype: The tintype has a pale whitish image, similar in appearance to the ambrotype. The tintype is lighter in weight, using iron (not tin), versus glass, for the image. The backs of tintypes were lacquered to protect the exposed metal from rust and oxidation. Without removing from its protective case, it is sometimes difficult to visually differentiate the tintype from the ambrotype; however, since the tintype is made of metal, the plate will attract a magnet. Timeline: 1854-1930s, height of popularity 1861-1900, with the Civil War years the peak.
Carte de visite: A small paper photograph mounted on to a commercially produced card of about 2 1/2 inches x 4 inches. The carte de visite was produced by the millions in the 19th century; as such examples are not considered rare. Photographic images were trimmed, often carelessly, to fit the card size. The name and location of the photographer should be imprinted on the back of the card. Timeline: 1859-late 1880s.
Cabinet card: The cabinet card is similar to the carte de visite, with a paper photographic print mounted on to commercially produced card stock of 6 1/2 x 4 1/4 inches. The name and location of the photographer should be imprinted on the back of the card. Timeline: 1866-1890s.
The Daguerreian Society, 3126 Millers Run Road Suite #4, PO Box #306, Cecil, PA 15321-0306 (412) 221-0306
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, MO 64111 816-751-1278.
The Hallmark Photographic Collection was acquired by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in January 2006, through a combination gift and purchase. Primarily American in the scope of its holdings, the collection spans the entire history of photography, from the birth of the medium in 1839 to the present. At the time of its acquisition by the Museum, it included more than 6,500 works by 900 artists, with superb examples by virtually all the key American photographers in history.
Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes by Sally Pierce,Wendy Wick Reaves, Grant Romer, Brian Wallis and Alan Trachtenberg (Steidl, 2005)
The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth Century Technology and Modern Science by M. Susan Barger, William B. White (John Hopkins University Press, 2000)
A World History of Photography – Third Edition by Naomi Rosenblum (Abbeville Press, 1997)
America and the Daguerreotype by John Wood (University of Iowa Press, 1999)
The Daguerreotype in America: Third Revised Edition by Beaumont Newhall (Dover Publications, 2004)
Sizing it Up
Daguerreotypes are referred to by their plate size – here’s what it means.
Full-plate: 6 1/2 inches x 8 1/2 inches. This was the most expensive, and the most difficult to make; consequently it is the most difficult (and the rarest) to find today.
Half-plate: 4 1/4 inches by 5 1/2 inches
Quarter-plate: 3 1/4 inches x 4 1/4 inches
Six-plate: 2 3/4 x 3 1/4 inches. (This is the most common size.)