Exactly 182 years ago, a distinguished Frenchman named Louis Daguerre, experimenting with the properties of silver salts demonstrated by Professor Johann Heinrich Schultze, invented the technique of exposing and fixing images known to the world as the daguerreotype. This discovery brought him to the altar of the fathers of photography, recognising his merits in the field of this marvellous art.
This very day, in fact, all the greatest amateur photographers, photographers and enthusiasts in the field are celebrating #WorldPhotographyDay, a holiday that carries the name of the French photographer who invented the daguerreotype ever higher.
But why him? Why is Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre so important compared to other pioneers of the art of light?
As narrated by time, on 19 August 1839, the French government decided to buy the patent for the daguerreotype, allowing Daguerre’s invention to be available worldwide (“free to the world”), marking the beginning of a new era that would indelibly affect human minds, that of preserving and maintaining historical memories. It is no coincidence that the daguerreotype is recognised as one of the greatest photographic inventions of the 19th century, and can be described as the game-changer that will allow the world to observe its past almost directly.
Among the many countries that made the most use of the Daguerreotype, the United States of America holds the record, as the nation across the Atlantic used the photographic process on a large scale and for various purposes. We need only think of all the portraits of American nobles and not, luminaries, American Indians, professors and soldiers. In a short time (and thanks to the generous heart of its inventor), the daguerreotype had achieved a reputation comparable to our smartphones and cutting-edge technological devices.
At the time, production costs per piece varied, but were still very low, ranging from 50 cents to $10. This allowed them to expand even faster across the country.
Despite all this fame, though, the daguerreotype also had a major problem that jumped out at the scholars of the time: the image was not replicable. Like Polaroids (the old ones, not today’s digital ones with SD cards), daguerreotypes had only one way to be reproduced as a second copy, and that was to be photographed again. This drawback, together with the difficulty of storing them under glass, caused the French photographer’s invention to fade into oblivion in the name of a more advanced technique called “Calotype” (or “Talbotype”), a process that allowed the reproduction of the image through the use of a negative, invented by Henry Fox Talbot, Daguerre’s historical rival. But that’s another story…
What remains important is the meaning behind this masterpiece, this product that has even influenced the world calendar. The daguerreotype is not just a technique or the result of a chemical process. The daguerreotype marks this day in the history of mankind and its socio-historical evolution, taking its place alongside the inventions that revolutionised the 1800s and influenced the future that followed. The inventor’s good heart continues to strike us every year, giving us a World Photography Day when we can remember him, when we can remember Niépce’s colleague and friend, a distinguished French man who made a dream come true. A distinguished French man who managed to stop time, box it and give it to us in the form of memories fixed on a thin copper plate.
Happy #WorldPhotographyDay to everybody.