Sadakichi Hartmann on Early Photography
by Sadakichi Hartmann
A DAGUERREOTYPE!--There it lies in its case among old papers, letters and curios. A frail encasement of wood covered with black embossed paper. We cannot resist the temptation to open it and glance at it. The clasp is loose; the old case almost falls apart. A weird tapestry- effect on the inside of the lid greets our eye, and opposite it is a gray blurred image set in a gilded frame with an oval or circular opening.
What a strange effect. this silvery glimmer and mirror-like sheen! Held towards the light, all substance seems to vanish from the picture; the highlights grow darker than the shadows, and the image of some gentleman in a stock or some lady in bonnet and puffed sleeves appears like a ghostlike vision. Yet, as soon as it is moved away from the light and contemplated from a certain angle, the image reappears, the mere shadow of a countenance comes to life again.
What is there so attractive about it? Even if we find it hanging among Stuarts and Sullys, on the wall of some old-fashioned mansion, we are sure to stop for a moment in vague and wistful thought. Is it naught but the mystery of age that attaches itself to relics of the past--the haunting smiles of persons whose originals have lain in their tombs for generations, dream-faces that call up love-led days? They look old, these daguerreotypes, as belonging to a far-remote period that has become estranged from us. But are they really so old as all that? People "in the sands of seventy" may still own some of these images that represent the as they looked in their infancy. Octogenarians my remember the incident even, when they sat for them in a room admitting blue light through colored window-panes. Blue light, long exposures of five to twenty minutes, and the shifting silvery flare of the image--those are the unmistakable characteristics of the genuine daguerreotype, its signs of authenticity. Whenever younger persons tell you that once upon a time they were daguerreotyped, do not trust them implicitly; they are probably misinformed.
The reign of the daguerreotype was an exceedingly short one. The time following its invention was an active one in photography. One new process supplemented the other. There was the ambrotype which supplemented glass-plates for metal-plates, and the ferrotype which made it possible to make a picture on paper. Besides there were any amount of other "types," as the colotype, cyanotype, chrysotype, amphitype, chromotype, fluorotype, and behind all these loomed th wet-collodion process which was in practical working-order as early as 1851 and came into general use all over the world i the fifties. It was probably one of these more commercial processes that the younger set refer to, and in many instances they may have been merely "tintyped"--tintype being the colloquial name for a ferrotype--an amusement which, in our own recollection, played quite an important part at summer-resorts, cheap amusement-places and county fairs.
The daguerreotype was in vogue, or, perhaps better expressed, in general use for practical portrait-purposes, only in the forties and fifties. It never became really popular. By the time the process had gained recognition, it was already discarded for quicker, easier and cheaper methods. It was too expensive, painstaking and scientific a manipulation for the workman; and to sit quietly for five or seven minutes, even on the brightest day, was surely no inducement to public favor after the charm of novelty had once worn off.
This is the reason why daguerreotypes are becoming more and more of a rarity. These shining sorceries on which light plays as on moonstone or mother-of-pearl, are attracting the attention of collectors and will steadily increase in value. A daguerreotyp by John W. Draper, the first American who made a portrait by this method, may bring exceptional prices at future auction sales Professor Draper's subject was his sister Catherine, who, with her face thickly powdered, patiently sat in the sunshine for hal and hour, the time that her brother considered necessary for the exposure. The Smithsonian Institute in recent years has pai special attention to this branch of photography, and a younger generation, desirous to keep home- and family-memories alive, has become quite eager to have old daguerreotypes enlarged and reproduced. Quite a trade has sprung up in consequence. A genuine daguerreotype is surely as choice and precious an heirloom as any other, and the desire to duplicate these images is one of the few opportunities to display a feeling of reverence and ancestral pride.
In the early forties photography was still hailed "as one of the most surprising discoveries," and the inventor L. J. M. Daguerre, a scene-painter by profession, but of little renown, who had frequently met the wolf of need at his doors, succeeded in selling the secret of his process to the French government. "For the glory of endowing the world of science with a new mechanica pictorialism," he received a pension of 6,000 francs for life, and the son of his former partner Niepce on of 4,000. This ma seem a small compensation now, but at that time few "prophets and visionaries" realized what this new pictorialism would eventually mean to the world; thus Daguerre and Niepce must be classed among the lucky inventors, in as far as Fortune rarely smiles more generously upon this precarious and most disappointing of intellectual occupations.
The scientific world had hoped for such a discovery, but had given up all expectation of the hope being realized. Ever since the middle ages men had bartered peace and quiet in pursuit of the ideal of a sun-drawn picture. Not until the beginning of the eighteenth century did the dream take any definite shape. About this time an humble lithographer with the high-sounding name of Joseph Nicephore Niepce used in his business for the reproduction of drawings a transferring-process which contained some of the vital elements of photography. Daguerre and Niepce met and entered into a partnership. They were looking for a convenience of reproduction merely, and they agreed to pursue their investigations and experiments in common and share the profits, whatever they might prove to be. No particular progress had been made when Niepce died in 1833, and Daguerre, with the grit that struggles to survive, continued to experiment along his own lines, finally achieving success in 1838. With the proud arrogance of the French bourgeois he announced publicly the full details of his invention before the Academy of Sciences on August 19, 1839.
It aroused interest everywhere. It shook the art-world with its fresh romance. Delacroix, the great French painter, exclaimed, "From this day, painting is dead!" However, he continued to paint. Other took a deep interest in these sun-kissed products and, by the time the inventor had made known the process whereby his beautiful pictures were produced, in various countries men of scientific bent had taken up the idea. A New Yorker by the name of Wolcott, and instrument-maker by trade, and a philosopher in leisure hours, took out the first patent for a camera for portraiture. The products of these years were still in the experimental stage; but it did not take many months before some "men of science: were taking likenesses for money.
Readers who have retained a slight chemical knowledge from the college days may be interested in a short explanation of the actual process. They were not really positives but reversed images, negatives of exceeding thinness, almost transparent, "backed" by the mirror-like surface of the silver, very much like an ordinary kodak film that is held against a dark object and in that way brings out the picture. Daguerre used a polished plate of silvered-copper on which a very thin film of silver iodide was allowed to form, by exposing the shiny surface to the vapor of iodine. This coated plate was then exposed in a camera and developed by the action of metallic mercury vapor. Fixing was accomplished in a solution of common salt.
The chemicals were cheap enough, but the substance they had to work upon was sufficiently expensive to frighten away the most enthusiastic amateurs. To buy a dozen plate at that time amounted almost to the same as to invest in a dozen solid-silver cigarette cases to-day, and each of these expensive plates would yield only one picture. The newness of the manipulation, no doubt, also caused many disasters of over-exposure and under-exposure, and, frequently, no exposure at all. So if one desired to take to this new pastime in a whole-souled fashion, one had to be either a mine-owner, or some sort of a Cassio who could follow Jago's advice. Nevertheless it made its way, and the semblance of all the celebrities of that period, such as John Jacob Astor, the elder Booth, Jenny Lind, Charles Sumner, Andrew Jackson, Webster; distinguished visitors like Kossuth, Dickens and the Prince of Wales; and our early authors, Irving, Cooper, N. P. Willis, Halleck, Bryant and Poe, have been preserved to us in daguerreotypes.
In order to take pleasure in these portraits of sixty and seventy years ago, it does not seem to be necessary to have known the persons whom they represent. To us their value consists in their faithful portrayal of fashions, environment and personalities of another age, and, at the same time, by their finish, they reveal the character, the conscientiousness and reach of that age. "People are inclined to smile because we praise the daguerreotypes of our grandfathers," said a prominent photographer recently, "but I want to say that the photograph of the present day is no improvement on it for artistic delicacy and subtlety of likeness." It is doubtful whether photographic portraiture of to-day will reflect our time in the same satisfactory manner. Its interest are, perhaps, too diversified, also, in most cases, too imitative of painting. Skill of execution is admired more that loyal interpretation.
The daguerreotype portraits show that their makers gave considerable thought to outward appearance and fashion. Portraiture was to them largely a matter of some person of means wishing to test this new style of image-making, who, naturally, desired a smart likeness of himself in colored vest, stock, flapping frockcoat and, if possible, a beaver on his head. Or it meant her ladyship in patterned gown, with bonnet and ribbons, short waist and puffed sleeves. Both of them had clean faces, new clothes and engaging smiles. Everybody had an air of tailoring and good breeding, as though born to a polite and comfortable life. The poses were the simplest imaginable, generally full-face views, as if they were looking at themselves in a mirror. There were no arrangements, no creeds of tone or pictorialism. They were too busy with the mechanical side of the sitting to delineate people at their best or what they, or their patrons, thought best. The papier-mache furniture and other gallery-horrors, with the exception of the venerable headrest, had not yet been thrust upon an indulgent public.
The result was simplicity mingled with a certain primitive awkwardness. Beneath the surface of this work there is, however, in these pictures a fundamental quality which will never pass out of fashion, but will be appreciated always by those who love artistic things. For although these portraits show the originals dressed in a way that strikes us as absurd, or though the setting of the figures--to say nothing of the attitudes and expressions--often seem to us ridiculous, they are nevertheless the work of me of enthusiasm and taste. We feel that they embody, in many instances, the vision of an artist's eye, and that in their faces there is a vitality which none but keen observers of human nature could have rendered. The names of these early photographers will remain unknown. Their signatures were not recorded. They apparently could not persuade themselves that it was worth any man's while to sign his name to what seemed to be then little more than a scientific pastime.
How truthful they are to nature is difficult to say. No retouching was possible, and facial blemishes could be modified only by a touch of color on the cheeks. This was really in their favor. During the long suspense while the face passed into the solarized condition, the modeling was lost to a certain extent and the fleshtints were deadened, but these very deficiencies produce elightful breadth of representation, as we have since learned to admire in the paintings of Manet and Whistler. And yet, at the same time, the detail of texture as, for instance, the sheen of a satin waistcoat, is copied with surprising beauty. They were composites of facial expression that were more trustworthy than those of the following period; for when more rapid exposur came into practice, the expression became more instantaneous, more restless, the shadows deepened and became opaque.
The daguerreotype will always be loved for its suavity of expression, its tempered technique and its convincing grace. Truth of substance was wedded to truth of style in its mellow sheen. The short duration of its sway will steadily increase its aesthetic importance. Although after its suppression it lingered on for a decade or more in various version, it was in fashion only in the forties and fifties, and this period it will continue to represent to us. Impressions that impress art-lovers generally have the flavo of rarity. This quality among object d'art is granted only to a chosen few. The daguerreotype speaks a language of its own that touches the common chords of life. The daguerreotype possesses the pictorial magic and historic power to fascinate the man as well as expert minds; for it conjures up to contemporary view and truthfully portrays forms and faces long passed away , things that are dead and lost to living eyes because it was, as James put it, "the real right thing" in its own peculiar time.
from Photo-Era, The American Journal of Photography 29.3 (September 1912): 101-105.
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