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“I have seized the light – I have arrested its flight!” – Louis Daguerre

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

One of the earliest surviving photographs by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, taken in 1838.

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.

January 7, 2015 – the 176th anniversary of the first public exhibition of photography by Louis Daguerre.

Frozen in Time: Century-Old Photos Discovered in Antarctica

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

As Mashable reports, rare photos from a century ago of the famous Shackleton expedition have been discovered.

As Fran Berkman writes, “conservationists have extracted 22 century-old images from a box of photo negatives they discovered in Antarctica earlier in 2013. The Antarctic Heritage Trust, of New Zealand, announced the discovery in December, saying the photographs are from Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 to 1917 Ross Sea Party expedition, whose task was to install supply depots on the remote continent.

‘It’s an exciting find and we are delighted to see them exposed after a century,’ Antarctic Heritage Trust’s Executive Director Nigel Watson said in a statement. The organization called [an] image of Shackleton’s Chief Scientist Alexander Stevens ‘one of the most striking images’ of the bunch.

Antarctic Heritage Trust discovered the images during a restoration project at British explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s hut on Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica. Shackleton’s party spent time living in Scott’s hut because their ship blew out to sea, leaving them stranded on the island, according to the Trust.

It required ’painstaking’ extraction to convert the cellulose nitrate negatives into photographs. To do so, the Trust tapped photo conservator Mark Strange, who separated and cleaned the mold from the negatives before sending them onto New Zealand Micrographic Services, where they were digitally scanned.

The identity of the original photographer remains unknown. Check out the video by clicking here, or on the image above, for more on the newly discovered photos. Other photos from the collection are available on the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s website.”

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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