Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre had been working on a photographic process since the 1820s, but it took him more than a decade to perfect what would become the basis for all modern photography, until the advent of the digital era. As noted in Wikipedia, the photograph above, “Boulevard du Temple, taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris, includes the earliest known candid photograph of a person. The image shows a street, but because of the over ten-minute exposure time the moving traffic does not appear. At the lower left, however, a man apparently having his boots polished, and the bootblack polishing them, were motionless enough for their images to be captured.”
This image was taken before Daguerre had publicly demonstrated his new invention, which he guarded carefully so that his process would not be revealed to the the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, most investors thought the entire idea of a realistic image taken from life by mechanical means was impossible, and Daguerre wanted to make sure that he, and he alone, controlled the rights to his invention – at least until the details were made public.
As Malcolm Daniel of the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote in an essay on Daguerre’s work, “on January 7, 1839, members of the French Académie des Sciences were shown products of an invention that would forever change the nature of visual representation: photography. The astonishingly precise pictures they saw were the work of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), a Romantic painter and printmaker most famous until then as the proprietor of the Diorama, a popular Parisian spectacle featuring theatrical painting and lighting effects. Each daguerreotype (as Daguerre dubbed his invention) was a one-of-a-kind image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper.
Daguerre’s invention did not spring to life fully grown, although in 1839 it may have seemed that way. In fact, Daguerre had been searching since the mid-1820s for a means to capture the fleeting images he saw in his camera obscura, a draftsman’s aid consisting of a wood box with a lens at one end that threw an image onto a frosted sheet of glass at the other. In 1829, he had formed a partnership with Nicéphore Niépce, who had been working on the same problem—how to make a permanent image using light and chemistry—and who had achieved primitive but real results as early as 1826. By the time Niépce died in 1833, the partners had yet to come up with a practical, reliable process.
Not until 1838 had Daguerre’s continued experiments progressed to the point where he felt comfortable showing examples of the new medium to selected artists and scientists in the hope of lining up investors. François Arago, a noted astronomer and member of the French legislature, was among the new art’s most enthusiastic admirers. He became Daguerre’s champion in both the Académie des Sciences and the Chambre des Députés, securing the inventor a lifetime pension in exchange for the rights to his process. Only on August 19, 1839, was the revolutionary process explained, step by step, before a joint session of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts, with an eager crowd of spectators spilling over into the courtyard outside.
The process revealed on that day seemed magical. Each daguerreotype is a remarkably detailed, one-of-a-kind photographic image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper, sensitized with iodine vapors, exposed in a large box camera, developed in mercury fumes, and stabilized (or fixed) with salt water or ‘hypo’ (sodium thiosulphate). Although Daguerre was required to reveal, demonstrate, and publish detailed instructions for the process, he wisely retained the patent on the equipment necessary to practice the new art.
Neither Daguerre’s microscopic nor his telescopic daguerreotypes survive, for on March 8, 1839, the Diorama—and with it Daguerre’s laboratory—burned to the ground, destroying the inventor’s written records and the bulk of his early experimental works. In fact, fewer than twenty-five securely attributed photographs by Daguerre survive—a mere handful of still lifes, Parisian views, and portraits from the dawn of photography.”
In an interesting twist, once the public demonstration took place, the French government acquired all rights to the process from Daguerre, in return for a lifetime pension given to the inventor, and then made the technique available free on a worldwide basis. It’s hard to imagine something so altruistic happening today.