Daguerreotype collectibles: during the first 25 years of the 19th century, many people worked on the challenge of writing in light. They prepared papers and plates with light-sensitive chemicals with limited success. Although both a French artist and English amateur inventor (William Fox Talbot) devised and publicized different methods at the same time, it was the French artist, Louis Jacques Daguerre, whose invention became more popular. 

A successful commercial artist in Paris, Daguerre studied the experiments of a countryman optician who was using light to create plates that could be inked and printed, resulting in accurate reproductions of scenes. One of the experiments was made in 1826, a view from a window that took 8 hours to expose, and is recognized as the world's earliest existing photograph. The two men collaborated, but the latter died in 1833, leaving Daguerre to carry on until success in 1837. He treated a silver-plated copper sheet with iodine to make it sensitive to light, exposed the plate in a camera, and developed the plate with mercury vapor. He named the invention Daguerreotype. Unable to sell his process by subscription, he soon found a supporter in the Academy of Sciences. He was soon compensated by the government for his invention for its contributions to the progress of art and science. On August 19, 1839, the invention was presented as a gift to the world from France, resulting in an immediate international mania. Daguerre had little else to do with the invention thereafter and died in 1851, contributing little else of significance during his life.  

Obsession with the Daguerreotype lasted twenty years, with improvements made to the lens, apparatus, and chemistry. The process was speeded up which was especially important when making commercial portraits, resulting in a new industry. Although it was expensive, the creation of a miniature portrait of a loved one became the substitute for more expensive portrait paintings. For less than $5, anyone could be captured on silver and framed and fitted to a richly embossed and gilded case. They could be made in studios, galleries, and even by itinerant photographers, with the business as profitable and as lucrative as gold-mining. The pictures captured scenes at international events, which were then displayed as newspaper illustrations. Each representation was truthful and realistic, inspiring novels and poetry. Photography became commonplace, showing man, his pets, his property, his ceremonies, and his death. 

The problems that developed over time included the heaviness of the polished metal, the delicate surface and the bulky case and frame. Common sizes were 2   3/4  by  3   1/4 inches, with much larger plates being considerably more expensive, and therefore rarer and more collectible. As the process was not subject to patent or license, anyone could create them without subscription costs. The exception was in England where Daguerre secured a patent. Memories of war and scientific competition between the two countries was still fresh in the minds of the two European giants. 

The process invented by Englishman, William Fox Talbot, produced paper negatives with soft prints, rather than the sharp Daguerreotype images. Although Talbot patented his process in 1841, licenses were hard to sell in face of the free French invention. In spite of this, it was Fox's prints-from-negatives concept that ultimately became the dominant force in photography, but it took more than two decades before advances in the process would contribute to the decline of daguerreotypes. In 1851 multiple prints from glass negatives appeared, followed in 1854 by inexpensive ambrotypes, and two years later, in 1856, the less expensive and much faster to develop tintypes. Soldiers in the American Civil War preferred to carry lighter more durable tintypes of their loved ones. Glass negatives, which documented the war, enabled thousands of copies. The Carte de Visite (CDV), became popular, allowing the reproduction of inexpensive paper portraits. Although the daguerreotype never regained its initial popularity, advocates of the process continue its practise in appreciation of its rich detail and elegance.




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