Before the summer of 1839, history posed for its portraits. Prior to August 19 of that year, all people, all events, all landscapes were artists’ renderings. But then in one revolutionary moment, on the banks of the river Seine, the capturing of a split second became the work not of painters but of new students of light – the photographers.
For nearly a century, it had been known that silver nitrate turned gray or black when exposed to light. The first success in capturing light’s patterns on paper dated to the 1790s when Thomas Wedgewood, heir to the Wedgewood porcelain family, coated paper with silver nitrate, set a leaf on top, put the plate in the sun, then applied oil of lavender. The result was an exquisite silhouette. Without a fixative, however, Wedgewood’s “photograms” turned black within the hour. Other British scientists slowed the darkening — briefly. Then in 1816, a French gentleman on his Burgundy estate took up the quest.
Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce preferred silver chloride to silver nitrate. His images were the sharpest yet but still could not be fixed. After years of frustration, Niépce turned to the curiously named bitumen of Judaea. This tarry substance adhered to glass when exposed to light. One morning in May 1826, Niépce filled a wine glass with pulverized bitumen, added oil of lavender, heated the steamy black paste and layered it on a silver plate. After warming the plate with an iron, he set it in a camera obscura and opened the lens. Eight hours later, he closed the lens. Washing the plate, Niépce held the first photograph (that’s it on the right). Niépce called his process “heliography” and the term soon reached the laboratory of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre.
A mediocre painter, Daguerre had already perfected another way of presenting light – the diorama. Since 1822, his theatrical dioramas had used screens, mirrors, and overhead beams to present light’s mystical qualities as seen in cathedrals, Alpine valleys, and other settings. Audiences flocked to dioramas, marveling at the shifting light, hailing “another miracle by M. Daguerre.” But Daguerre wanted more. He wanted “the sun to take pictures for me.”
Poring over chemistry books to learn of light-sensitive substances, Daguerre exposed silver plates with iodine vapors, making silver iodide, darker than silver chloride. Carbonic acid reversed negative images and chlorate of potassium, heated by a lamp — fine-tuned the contrast. Daguerre’s wife worried that he was “possessed” by his pursuit. “He is always at the thought,” Madame Daguerre told a noted chemist. “He cannot sleep at night for it.” Was such a dream even possible, she asked? The chemist found it unlikely.
Then one day in 1835, Daguerre set a barely exposed plate in his cabinet of chemicals. The next morning, he took out the plate, thinking he would use it again. He stopped, stared. The plate bore a finely etched image, easily the best he had made. Having no idea what had developed the image, Daguerre began setting exposures in the cabinet and removing chemicals one by one. The telltale substance proved to be mercury vapors rising from a broken thermometer. More fixatives followed until, in 1837, Daguerre made his first permanent image (the one above). Another eighteen months of work led to the date fixed in the memory of every student of photography.
August 19, 1839. A Monday. A gorgeous summer afternoon in the City of Light. There are no photos of the event — indoor light being far too weak to capture. But picture the dapper Daguerre seated in the ornate hall before a joint gathering of France’s Academie des Sciences and Academie des Beaux-Arts. The crowd spills onto the quai overlooking the Seine. This is the moment Paris has awaited since Daguerre’s accident with mercury vapor was first announced in an arts journal: “It is said that M. Daguerre has discovered a means of receiving on a plate of his own preparation the images produced by the camera obscura. Physical science has probably never presented a marvel comparable to this.”
But how was such a marvel performed? Daguerre refused to say, and the public grew skeptical. As the inventor of the diorama, Daguerre was, after all, an illusionist. Then in July, France’s Chamber of Deputies approved the government’s purchase of “the eye and pencil of this new painter.” A month later, on August 19, the veil was finally lifted. Daguerre, nervous and shaking, pleaded a sore throat and sat in silence while another official explained this latest triumph of science and of France. Before he finished, crowds outside were shouting the secrets along the quai.
“Hypo-sulphite of soda!”
Seizing the light, however, was not as simple as clicking a shutter. The public explanation left many confused, forcing Daguerre to demonstrate for reporters in his studio. Taking out a copper plate coated with silver, he buffed it with powdered pumice, then rinsed it in a solution of nitric acid. After darkening the room, he placed the plate face down on a box containing heated iodine. The vapors, filtered through muslin, turned the plate yellow. Daguerre then fit the plate into his camera, a metal box two feet long and one foot square. Hefting the camera to his window, Daguerre looked at his watch. It was a gray afternoon. The exposure time, he announced, would be shorter on a sunny day. Or in Spain or Italy. He opened the lens. Outside, carriages, horses, and people passed, but their images would be only faint blurs on his plate. Daguerre checked his watch again. Reporters fidgeted. After several minutes, he closed the lens, removed the plate and leaned it above a tin filled with mercury. He set a flame beneath. When the mercury reached 60 degrees Celsius, Daguerre let the steaming quicksilver cool, then took out the plate and bathed it in a solution of sodium thiosulfate (the “hypo-sulfate of soda” called out on the quai). The entire process took a half hour. Reporters huddled around as Daguerre held before them a crystalline image, five-inches square, of what the sun had painted outside his window. Through glasses, monocles, and pince-nez, reporters examined each intricate detail. Eyebrows rose. The wonder had begun.
Paris quickly succumbed to “daguerreotypomania.” Throughout the city, men hefted bulky boxes and balanced them on tripods. Iodine and mercury sold out of pharmacies. “Everyone wanted to copy the view offered by his window,” one man recalled “and the poorest pictures caused him unutterable joy.” By mid-September, daguerreotypes were made in London and New York. Men with cameras and chemicals set out for Italy, Egypt, and the Holy Land. Then a British chemist, adding chlorine vapor to the stew, reduced exposure time to a few seconds. Soon the well-heeled and well-known were seated before cameras, their necks held by braces. Within a few minutes, each left the Daguerreotype studio holding a lustrous portrait.
“Daguerreotypomania” has barely slackened. Some 3.5 trillion photos have been taken since 1839, and the spread of smart phones has upped the numbers exponentially. Today, nearly 400 billion photos are taken each year, more snapped every few minutes than were taken in the nineteenth century.
Sunlight had always been a reliable clock, but Daguerre stopped the clock could be stopped. Catching the view from his window and showing it to reporters, he held a piece of afternoon. This newly tamed light was a gift to those who could hold it, a gift we still open whenever a digital camera or smart phone is passed around so all can admire the scene shot seconds ago. Not much has changed in those seconds. Anyone present could turn and see the same scenery, the same faces, larger and alive. Yet all are captivated by the image. Here is how the light looked, here in your hand. “Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it,” Susan Sontag observed, “all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”