Through the Silver Mirror

NEW YORK, NY -- The commercialization of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s process for producing a photographic image began almost as soon as its public announcement in 1839. Though there were several slightly earlier methods for taking photographs, including Joseph Niépce’s bitumen-based procedure, heliography, none had yet been exploited on a wide scale. (Daguerre had consulted with Niépce when developing his own process, which was chemically quite distinct). That changed with the public introduction of the daguerreotype; almost immediately, studios were set up to promote the new technology to an eager public.

Previously, there had been no method available to produce a direct portrait, the likeness of oneself or a loved one. The services of an artist were costly, and the results interpretive, and not always satisfactory. The camera cast the image directly onto a sensitized, silvered plate of copper, and it was made visible with the application of mercury vapor, and fixed with sodium thiosulfate, and often further toned with gold chloride, which gave a warmer tone and consolidated the silver particles. The final product was still very easily marred and the silver could tarnish, so it was almost invariably covered with glass, sealed, and then cased.

This daguerreian era of photography lasted for roughly twenty years, before other processes superseded it. Thousands of studios flourished—to varying degrees—in America alone, but by the late 1850s interest in the process had started to wane, as cheaper tintypes and paper prints came onto the scene. These last conquered one of the major limitations of the daguerreotype process; photographs from a glass plate negative could be printed out as many times as the photographer required or their customer requested. With the daguerreotype, the image was the plate within the camera; without rephotographing the original (which led to a loss of fine detail), only that single example existed, and there was thus no way the image for the image to be distributed so that it would have wider currency.

Another factor that contributed to the downfall of the process was that the procedure of having one’s photograph taken was physically demanding. Exposures were frequently lengthy and the need to remain stationary was unquestionably somewhat uncomfortable. Often the head of the subject would be unobtrusively clamped from behind to ensure that there was no movement to mar the image. This made photographing children especially difficult, given their tendency to move (tragically, some of the most affecting images of children are post-mortem). Given the use of salts of silver and gold in the processing, the expense of cases and the photographer’s fee, it was quite an expensive matter to have a daguerreotype taken, even in small sizes (images range from whole-plate, about 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, down to small fractional-plate images: a sixteenth-plate, the smallest available image, measures roughly 1 3/8 x 1 5/8 inches).

Viewing the image: the aesthetics of the portrait daguerreotype

The daguerreotype is fundamentally a veridical image; it is truthful (to some value of truth). As noted, the image is unique and made directly to the photographic plate. What we see when we look at a daguerreotype is essentially what the camera lens transmitted, no more, no less. Augmentation was limited to carefully hand-applied tints for skin tones and clothing and gold for jewelry (when requested; this added significantly to the cost of the image). Images exhibit lateral reversal (which was sometimes corrected with a secondary mirror in the camera, though infrequently, as this diminished the incident intensity of the light on the plate surface). In portraits then, we are viewing the sitter largely as they appeared in life, though as in a mirror.

It would be false to claim that there is no subjective element in the daguerreotype. Because this was an important occasion, and because substantial expense and effort were entailed, the prospective subjects of a sitting would generally wear clothing that they felt best presented them, and that appropriately displayed their social station. The photographer could, by lighting and careful composition, and with props and drapes, further enhance the composition, and advise the sitter how best to position themselves in order that they would look their best.

This is far from photography as we think of it from a twentieth-century perspective. Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote: “The photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail – and it can be subordinated, or it can be tyrannized by it. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.”

But the daguerreian artists did not have anything approaching this degree of latitude; they were constrained by the relatively heavy camera, the tripod and above all, the need to avoid movement. The modern portrait photograph usually involves a long series of images taken in sequence, with the photographer instructing the subject on expression and position. This is designed to bring about some form of authenticity of presentation in the portrait image; or, at very least, the most attractive presentation of the subjects’ features. With exposures lasting many seconds, this kind of artistic intervention on the part of the daguerreotypist was impossible.

What do we see in a daguerreotype portrait? Often, just what we impose on it. The sitter was generally instructed not to smile; to hold a fixed smile for the length of an exposure would be impractical, and a frown would be unbecoming. Indeed, if they could avoid blinking, that was ideal. No major movement was possible, as it would show up as a blur in the finished image. What we see, then, is the subject as they wished to be seen, in an emotionally neutral moment, in which their expression offers no cues to their inner life. We are to gather who they are solely from their dress, their accoutrements, perhaps even from the background to the image.

However, much that would have been obvious to a nineteenth-century viewer is now enigmatic. Indicators of social status, for example, that would have been plain to a contemporary viewer are no longer especially apparent at this remove in time. Nuances of personal style, occupational attire and the like similarly must be carefully researched and explicated. Against this conceptual blank slate, the very inscrutability of these images may create an emotional reaction in the viewer, akin to Roland Barthes’ punctum; that is, that part of the process of viewing a photograph when emotional resonance adds a profound dimension to the experience. This may perhaps be no more than a form of pareidolia, as the mind struggles to inject meaning where it feels meaning should be, but it is nonetheless potent for that. We are used to being immediately able to mine the context from photographic portraits of our own time, because we hold in common with both subject and photographer certain assumptions about the meanings of dress, appearance, demeanor and expression. When these cues are removed, an instinctual reaction to the image may be the most appropriate response.

The philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, who wrote extensively on the aesthetics of photography in the 1930s, at one point stated of nineteenth-century photography (writing at a point in time much closer to it than we are today): “in the fleeting expression of the human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time” (“Aura” is a term in Benjamin’s philosophical lexicon that stands, in essence, for authenticity, freedom from artificial replication, and aesthetic validity). We agree with him that there are exceptional qualities in these early portrait images; that they are profoundly unlike what we now conceive of as photographic art. Each image is a unique survival, and as such they have a compelling quality; each is an evocative window into a past that can be only imperfectly reconstructed, and in that lies the charm of these remarkable photographs.

A Collection of Daguerreotypes 

Auction Wednesday, December 14, 2017 at 10am
Exhibition on view December 9 - 12

Hanna Siesel profiles a collection of daguerreotypes to be offered in the sale of Photographs on December 14:

This collection of daguerreotypes represents the range of subjects and moods one associates with the process: stolid middle-class ladies and gentlemen, reluctant children, and families arranged in groups as familiar as a modern holiday card. Daguerreotypes not only capture the individual, but also document the histories of dress, occupation, art and architecture, and relationships among siblings and friends.  

Group of unusual and interesting male portraits and occupationals [Lot 14] comprises five daguerreotypes of men whose clothing and accoutrements describe each subject's job and stature. Especially charming are a pair of sitters with a toolbox whose mismatched postures set them apart from the rigidity that often characterizes group daguerreotypes. The man at left leans towards his companion, his focus appears fixed in middle-distance while still trained on his friend. In contrast, the man at right looks directly to his side and leans away. These postural gestures, however opposed, lend the composition an unusual sense of warmth and familiarity.

Beyond portraits of people, daguerreotypes preserve memories of place. Group of three daguerreotypes of buildings [Lot 27] records one image of a house and two images of the same, unidentified building, maybe a church or courthouse. A particularly early image, the daguerreotype of the house not only records architectural style, it hints at a moment in the lives of its occupants and passers-by, making the home its own actor in the image. The lit windows on the ground floor evidence life inside, and the white blur in front shows action in the street.

The images of the church are less animated, but the before and after is equally compelling: both the building and its surroundings evoke the passage of time, and indeed this pair of daguerreotypes may document damage sustained during the Civil War. The horse and wagon in the foreground endure only in the first image, while the curved branches of one tree at right are recognizable in both daguerreotypes. Each of these living elements say “here I am, or here I was, and this is my world.”

Perhaps Two sixth-plate daguerreotypes of musicians [Lot 25] most clearly illustrate the ways in which the daguerreotype straddles the gap between transience and stillness. In the image of the violin player, the spontaneity of the strike of the bow across the strings is artifice: one is not really looking at the moment before the chord, but a thoroughly frozen pose. The three musicians evoke the same, false immediacy. Their cigars capture the same ephemerality of a Dutch still life, but instead of a waft of imagined smoke recreated in paint by hand, we see two real stogies. Despite these contradictions, the trio’s fierceness is disarming. It is hard not to imagine the kinds of venues in which they might entertain, and how they might spend their days or nights after the show.

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