Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Photo Identification Series: Part One...Daguerreotypes: Who, What, When and How...


These two are my only daguerreotypes and I love them. The beauty that shows through after all these years is still life-like and breathtaking to me. Daguerreotypes are the oldest form of practical and popular portrait photography.

The process for creating daguerreotypes was invented by a French artist named Louis-Jacques-Mand'e Daguerre. The country of France made his process a gift to the world and distributed a manual in 1839 that gave instructions on performing the process. The popularity of this new art form quickly spread and there were 100's of daguerreotype photographers in America by the early 1840's.

Inventive photographers refined Daguerre's process to less than 30 minutes per sitting for personal portraits. This allowed the popularity of the daguerreotype to grow and the industry to blossom. It reigned the most practical form of portrait photography until the 1860's when Ambrotypes and Tintypes came into favor.

Unidentified Male, scanned daguerreotype from personal collection, dated approximately early to middle 1850's.

Close-up of scanned image

I believe that this gentleman dates from the early 1850's to middle 1850's. I can only base this on the clothing he is wearing. His white, crisp, starched collar is turned up and extends to his jawbone. His kercheif is tied asymmetrically which was the style in the late 1840's into the 1850's. His vest appears to to be a black wool matching his jacket. His face is clean shaven which was the style in the early 1850's. I love his piercing eyes and his haphazard hairstyle.

Unidentified female, scanned daguerreotype from personal collection, dated approximately middle to late 1850's.

Closeup of scanned image

I believe that this daguerreotype dates from the middle to late 1850's based on the lady's outfit and hairstyle. Her hair has a beautifully set coronet braid. This is wrapped around the entire crown of her head rather than rolled into a bun or knot. This was the style in the later 1850's. Her black silk dress could mean she is in mourning. But because of the presence of the white lace collar and white lace under sleeves it would not be her first year of mourning. The large sleeve openings and lace under sleeves help to date the clothes to the late 1850's also. Earlier styles favored tight sleeve openings and no undersleeves.

How Daguerreotypes Are Created

Creating a daguerreotype was dangerous work. The daguerreotype image is exposed onto a sheet of silver plated copper. This sheet was dipped in an acid bath and then put into a closed box and covered with iodine vapor. This process made the sheet ready to be exposed to light for the portrait. Once the exposure was completed the sheet was fumed with heated mercury which developed the image. Soaking the plate in hyposulfate of soda made the portrait permanent.

The plates were sized before development and came in these approximate measurements:

Whole plate : 6.5 " x 8.5"
Half-plate : 4.25" x 5.5"
Quarter-plate : 3.25" x 4.25"
Sixth-plate (My dags are this size) : 2.75 " x 3.25"
Ninth-plate : 2" x 2.5"
Sixteenth-plate : 1 3/8" x 1 5/8"

Daguerreotype portraits are reversed left to right images and each one is unique with no negative created. The silver plated sheet was highly polished before processing and is what gives the daguerreotype it's mirror-like surface. You must look at these photos at the correct angle to see the image clearly. As you can see from the photo above if the angle is wrong you will only see a silver negative. This is also how you can tell a daguerreotype from a cased ambrotype or tintype image. The mirror quality is a true test of a dag's authenticity.

You should never try to clean or touch the actual surface of the photo plate. They are easily destroyed and any scratch is permanent. There are people who restore daguerreotypes, but it is a pricey undertaking.

Daguerreotype images are very fragile and are usually taped to a cover glass with a brass mat sandwiched between them. You can still see the original tape wrapped around the back of my female portrait. The entire packet was then placed in a protective case that could close and keep it safe. The cases that my images are housed in are separated from their covers. They are still residing in their original bottoms. Cases could be made of wood covered with leather or paper and they could be made of thermoplastic (a mixture of sawdust and varnish) referred to as Union Cases. My cases are wooden cases. The designs on the back are beautiful also.
I hope this has helped you and answered some of the questions you have about dags. I am certainly no expert, but it is so much fun learning about the history of our treasures:) Love, Jamie

This last photo is just plain ole' bad photography, but I like how grainy and dark it turned out. And none of these pictures where manipulated in Photoshop. No matter HOW badly I wanted to do that. LOL!!!

Quotes for Today:

"In after ages, when these images on the silver plate have become an olden theme like the sublime creations of the painters' skill of a former age, then indeed their true value will be known and appreciated."
~N.G. Burgess, daguerreotypist from the 1850's

"All of the people who stare back at us from the old daguerreotypes, so direct and so dignified, are now dust. Dead and gone for generations. But somehow the brilliance, clarity, and depth of their surviving daguerreotypes, unmatched by even the most modern of photographs, almost brings them back to life."
~ Kenneth E. Nelson from his article, "A Thumbnail History of the Daguerreotype"

Reference Sources:

"Collectors Guide to Early Photographs" by O. Henry Mace

"Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion, 1840-1900" by Joan Severa


José said...

Thank you so much for your explanation on daguerreotypes. It's easy to read. The images are beautiful. And the quotes are perfect. Looking forward to your next message.

Lori said...

Miss Texas, you are a wealth of information...this post was really interesting...i had no idea how labor intensive {and dangerous} the process of creating this type of photo was...your pictures are lovely...i think the framing is fantastic too...thanks for the words you left for me, you know i love you girl...i am hoping to have my latest test results sometime today...

Gail said...

Love that history! Thanks so much, the images are so fantastic.....

Terri said...

I inherited one of these in 2001. I then saw a few of them in an antique shop sell for $75.00 several years back.
But it wasn't untill I read through your blog that I have a new found apreciation for these.

Sarah said...

You have certainly done your homework on the subject and I appreciate all of the time and research involved in presenting this series on photo identification. Looking forward to Part Two! Thanks

Alisa said...

Fantastic lesson, Jamie! Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

Tumble Fish Studio said...

What a very cool post to read! Wow! I am totally fascinated and now want to hunt for some of my own! I had no idea!

I have so much to catch up on in blogland it may take me more than one trip here to catch up on you but I wanted to at least pop in and leave a big fat thank you for your friendship and support and caring thoughts! You have no idea how they help! I'll be back soon!


Terri said...

I so don't have one.:(
I went ahead and posted it for you to look at.
Thank You for the education. I would of never known there was a difference.

The Odd Bird said...

Thank you for your post... so interesting. I have a daguerreotype that I inherited from a great uncle. If I can find it would you mind looking at a scanned image and giving me your thoughts (date etc.) on it.

Jamie said...

Hello Odd Bird!! I would love to see your dag! Just send the image to my email:

I am no expert, but will tell you what I can about it!:) Love, Jamie

Tami Roth said...

LOVED this information on these beautiful types of photos, Jamie! I won't try to spell it! So interesting and beautiful - I love tin types as well :)
Thanks for sharing!

Elizabeth Golden said...

Great post! I would have to agree with your time frame. - Maybe late 1850's. During the "War" almost all women dressed in mourning type clothes. Some "boy" was always a prisoner or dead. Plus everyone was getting their photo taken to leave behind or to take with them.

Nancy Maxwell James said...

this was a facinating post. I have never heard of daguerrotypes. Gorgeous images and thank you! :)


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