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The painter and inventor Louis Daguerre in 1844, daguerreotype by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot (1801–1881)

The daguerreotype was the first commercially viable photography process in the 19th century. It is named after the French painter Louis Daguerre , who helped develop the process and published it in 1839.

The rights to the process were acquired by the French government on the initiative of the physicist François Arago . She paid a lifelong pension to Daguerre and Isidore Niepce , the son of his former partner Nicéphore Niépce . Arago presented the process to the public on August 19, 1839, at a joint meeting of the Paris Academies of Science and Fine Arts. After that, it was the first practicable photography method available to everyone for free and unpaid use. However, England was excluded due to the previous grant of a patent to a Daguerre licensee.


The daguerreotype is a photograph on a mirror-smooth polished metal surface. For this purpose, silver-plated copper plates, mostly 0.65 to 0.75 mm thick, were used, which were sold by the manufacturers of silver- plaque goods under the name of silver plaque . The pure silver plates initially used by Daguerre turned out to be too expensive, cost-reducing variants with un-silvered copper or thin silver foil had disadvantages.

Right from the start, the daguerreotype provided well-nuanced and finely structured images which, when viewed with a magnifying glass, show the smallest details. It established a high standard at the beginning of the history of photography, against which all later processes had to be measured. The image tone, originally a light gray to blue-gray, could also be golden yellow after the introduction of the gold tone presented by Hippolyte Fizeau on March 23, 1840 and thus achieve an even more natural effect.

The weaknesses of the process are a high health risk for the photographer (handling of toxic fumes) and a reversed image of the subjects taken. Another deficiency in the early days was the very low sensitivity to light. In addition, each daguerreotype is unique , which cannot be easily reproduced, which, however, increased its appreciation at the time. There is a special and very characteristic limitation when looking at the pictures: the shadow areas of the pictures are represented by shiny silver. Depending on whether it reflects light or darkness, a daguerreotype can be seen as negative or positive (however, it is included in the positive process ). This inconvenience was a major factor in the rapid success of subsequent procedures.

Cultural and historical significance

Fire damage in Hamburg 1842, daguerreotype by Hermann Biow

After they were mainly used for architectural photographs in the first years around 1840 because of the long exposure time , the daguerreotypes soon gained popularity, especially as small-format portraits . They were cheaper than the painted miniatures customary up to that time , but were unsurpassed and at the time surprisingly true to nature. They were therefore presented in similarly elegant boxes or representative picture frames . The lack of color in the images was mostly accepted. However, even the developed coloring already in high bloom, especially at the most than in Paris stereo recordings made nudes .

In addition, almost all other areas of photography were already established through daguerreotype recordings. In addition to, for example, still lifes , reproductions of paintings or graphics, science and travel photos , contemporary historical events have also been recorded. The photographs of the ruins of the fire disaster in Hamburg by Hermann Biow in 1842 are considered to be the beginnings of photojournalism in Germany. Alexander von Minutoli in Liegnitz used the daguerreotype for thirteen years to photograph his collection of models for craftsmen and manufacturers.


La Daguerréotypomanie caricature by Theodore Maurisset (1803–1860), published in late 1839

With the publication of the daguerreotype in 1839, photography was able to spread throughout the world within a few months from the very beginning of its history. The daguerreotype enjoyed great popularity until the late 1850s. In terms of sharpness and detail, it was also clearly superior to the first negative-positive process of the calotype (also known as "talbotype") by William Henry Fox Talbot , which was mainly used in Great Britain at the same time. However, because of the annoying mirroring - unlike the calotype - it was hardly suitable for large picture formats and as wall decoration.

The daguerreotype process was predominant in Europe until the 1850s, and for a few years longer in the USA. It was then superseded by better processes, the collodion negative and the albumen paper print , in particular by the inexpensive business card portraits and the positive process of the ambrotype .

Daguerreotypes have been coveted collectibles since around 1970. Since then, ambitious photographers all over the world have taken up the process again as an artistic stylistic device.


Paris street view (Boulevard du Temple), daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre, taken from the window of his study, 1838; this picture is considered to be the oldest photo in which people are depicted (shoe shiners and customers on the street corner, bottom left)

Daguerre had worked in partnership with Nicéphore Niépce , the inventor of heliography , since 1829 . However, his method is an independent development based on completely different principles than heliography.

The daguerreotype is based on the sensitivity of silver halides to light . The silver-plated copper plates were first carefully polished and then made photosensitive by the action of iodine vapor . Later, the plates were also exposed to bromine and chlorine vapors , which significantly increased the plate's sensitivity to light. The vapor deposition formed silver iodide or silver bromide on the surface of the silver layer . The plate then had to be kept in the dark and used as soon as possible because it only had a short shelf life.

During exposure ("exposure"), they were exposed on the image side of a camera to the light falling through the lens of the camera . An upside-down and (when viewed from above) also reversed image was projected onto its surface . Because of the low sensitivity of iodized silver, exposure to the sun initially lasted ten to fifteen minutes, but later, thanks to improvements in the process and lenses, less than half a minute, making portraits possible. In the exposed areas of the picture, the silver halide was reduced to metallic silver .

Then it was developed with the help of mercury vapors . On the carrier plate, mercury droplets were deposited on the parts of the very faint silver image that had previously been struck by light. After fixing , initially in a sea ​​salt , later in a "hyposulfite" ( thiosulfate ) or potassium cyanide solution, whereby the remaining light-sensitive silver salts dissolved, an extremely light-resistant, light-gray image was created. However, the mercury precipitate was extremely sensitive to touch. The carrier plate was therefore mounted behind a glass pane together with a passepartout and glued airtight to this to protect against oxidation , before it was finally placed in its enclosure (box or frame).

The use of mercury vapors and potassium cyanide was extremely harmful to health, which is why many daguerreotypists died relatively early.


Daguerreotype camera, Giroux system
Voigtländer daguerreotype camera (replica)

Special cameras for the daguerreotype process were offered as early as September 1839 by the company Susse Frères and a few days later under Daguerre's personal license (indicated by his name on a screwed-on plaque) also by his brother-in-law Alphonse Giroux. The devices developed from the camera obscura were so-called sliding box cameras. Their housing consisted of two parts pushed into one another, with the help of which one could set the distance. A simple lid on the lens served as a closure, which was removed by hand during exposure and then put back on again.

Of the slightly more recent daguerréotype camera from the manufacturer Giroux, there are around ten in museums around the world. Another camera of this type was privately owned in Northern Germany until 2010. The device was auctioned together with its original German-language instructions for use by a Viennese auction house on May 29, 2010 for a net price of EUR 610,000 or EUR 732,000 including a 20 percent buyer's premium . It was then the most expensive camera in the world for a year; on May 28, 2011, an even higher price was achieved for a Leica. The Giroux Daguerréotype camera already had a magazine that took up the carrier plate and was pushed into the device instead of the focusing screen required for the settings before exposure.

The exposure time was in 1840 with the first scientifically calculated portrait lens of the Vienna Professor Josef Petzval be significantly reduced (see article Petzval lens ). The optician Friedrich von Voigtländer was the first to build it for Petzval. It had 16 times the light intensity of the lens used in the Giroux cameras.

At the same time as the lens - and of course equipped with it - Voigtländer also developed an independent camera system for daguerreotypes. For the first time, his apparatus was made entirely of metal and had the shape of a cone. A second cone carried the screen and a magnifying glass. It was screwed onto the former in preparation for taking the picture, so that the camera was then shaped like a double cone. As an accessory, there was a table tripod with two forks into which the device was loosely placed in order to align it and bring the image into focus. Before the exposure, the daguerreotypist carried the entire camera into the darkroom, screwed on a magazine instead of the viewing module, which contained the carrier plate, which was circular in this concept, and then placed the camera back on the table stand. Also for the final processing, the whole apparatus was carried into the darkroom again. The system was robust and reliable, but limited to a specific plate size and the unusual round shape of the images.


Elderly woman in “Biedermeier costume”, daguerreotype around 1840 (sixth plate); Reproduction in black and white
Stereo daguerreotype “Herr vor Spiegel” (FK Strezek, CJ Rospini) in a stereoscope

The factory-made panels were cut to the required size by the photographer, starting from the entire panel. In individual cases, this can therefore differ slightly from the dimensions given in the table below. The price for a dozen silver-plated copper plates in the normal format 216 mm × 162 mm was initially around 42 Courantmarks in Germany, while the price for a  finished recording was just under 17 Courantmarks.

Standard sizes of daguerreotype plates
description size comment
Whole plate 216 mm × 162 mm 8 Paris inches × 6 Paris inches (4: 3)
Half plate 162 mm × 108 mm 6 Paris inches × 4 Paris inches (3: 2)
Third plate 162 mm × 72 mm (9: 4)
Quarter plate 108 mm × 81 mm 4 Paris inches × 3 Paris inches (4: 3)
Sixth plate 81 mm × 72 mm (9: 8)
Eighth plate 81 mm × 54 mm 3 Paris inches × 2 Paris inches (3: 2)
Ninth plate 72 mm × 54 mm (4: 3)
Four-sixth plate 162 mm × 144 mm for stereo recordings (2 × 9:16)

Other methods of producing photographic images:


Web links

Wiktionary: Daguerreotype  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Daguerreotypes  - Collection of Images

Individual evidence

  1. Wolfgang Baier: History of Photography , p. 115.
  2. ^ R. Derek Wood: A State Pension for LJM Daguerre for the Secret of his Daguerreotype Technique . In: Annals of Science , September 1997, Vol. 54 (5), pp. 489-506; Taylor & Francis, UK.
  3. Wolfgang Baier: History of Photography , p. 77.
  4. Original French text: Extrait d'un rapport fait à la chambre des députés, par M. Arago, sur le Daguerréotype, procédé inventé par M. Daguerre pour prodiure spontanément des images de la nature recues dans la chamber noire. In: Bulletin de la Société d'encouragement. Trente-Huitième Année, L. Bouchard-Huzard, Paris 1839, p. 325 ff., ( Digitized version http: //vorlage_digitalisat.test/1%3D~GB%3D9jYFAAAAQAAJ%26hl~IA%3D~MDZ%3D%0A~SZ%3DPA325~ double-sided%3D~LT%3D~PUR%3D).
  5. Brian Coe: The First Century of Photography. 1800-1900. Gondrom, Bindlach 1986, ISBN 3-8112-0484-X , p. 17.
  6. Anton George C. Martin: . Volume 2: Complete Guide to Photography on Metal. In addition to the latest advances in photography on paper. Gerold, Vienna 1848, p. 20.
  7. Wolfgang Baier: History of Photography , p. 80.
  8. Wolfgang Baier: History of Photography , p. 126.
  9. Bodo von Dewitz , Roland Scotti (ed.): All truth! All lie! Photography and Reality in the 19th Century. The Robert Lebeck Collection. Verlag der Kunst, Amsterdam et al. 1996, ISBN 90-5705-024-2 , p. 29.
  10. a b Uwe Scheid: Collecting Photographica. Cameras, photographs, equipment. Keyser, Munich 1977, ISBN 3-87405-102-1 , p. 27.
  11. James E. Cornwall: The early days of photography in Germany. 1839-1869. The men of the first few hours and their procedures. Verlag für Wirtschaft und Industrie, Herrsching / Ammersee 1979, ISBN 3-88369-120-8 , illustration on p. 14.
  12. ^ A b Heinrich L. Nickel: David Octavius ​​Hill. Roots and effects of his photography art. fotokinoverlag Halle, Halle (Saale) 1960, p. 18.
  13. Rainer Wick (Ed.): The Erotic Daguerreotype. Uwe Scheid collection. Kunstverlag, Weingarten 1989, ISBN 3-8170-2504-1 , p. 12.
  14. James E. Cornwall: The early days of photography in Germany. 1839-1869. The men of the first few hours and their procedures. Verlag für Wirtschaft und Industrie, Herrsching / Ammersee 1979, ISBN 3-88369-120-8 , p. 54. (Comment: The recordings were lost because the Hamburg Historical Society did not want to buy them. (Cornwall, p. 54, after : Wilhelm Weimar: The Daguerreotype in Hamburg 1839-1860 , p. 15.))
  15. ^ Matthias Gretzschel: The first photo of Hamburg. Hamburger Abendblatt , December 24, 2002, accessed on March 29, 2017 .
  16. Margret Dorothea Minkels, Zygmunt Wielowiejski: Alexander von Minutoli, the founder of the 1st arts and crafts museum in the world (1844) . Norderstedt 2018, ISBN 978-3-7460-6982-1 , p. 161 f., 190 f., 614 f., 632-634 .
  17. Brian Coe: The First Century of Photography. 1800-1900. Gondrom, Bindlach 1986, ISBN 3-8112-0484-X , p. 19.
  18. Uwe Scheid: Collecting Photographica. Cameras, photographs, equipment. Keyser, Munich 1977, ISBN 3-87405-102-1 , p. 7.
  19. Wolfgang Baier: History of Photography , p. 74.
  20. ^ Walter Koschatzky: The art of photography. Technology, history, masterpieces (= dtv pocket books 2898). Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-7010-0386-6 , p. 57.
  21. James E. Cornwall: The early days of photography in Germany. 1839-1869. The men of the first few hours and their procedures. Verlag für Wirtschaft und Industrie, Herrsching / Ammersee 1979, ISBN 3-88369-120-8 , p. 66.
  22. Brian Coe: The First Century of Photography. 1800-1900. Gondrom, Bindlach 1986, ISBN 3-8112-0484-X , p. 18.
  23. Record price: camera from 1839 in Vienna auctioned by DiePresse.com, May 31, 2010
  24. World record price : 1.32 million for Leica ORF, May 28, 2011.
  25. Wolfgang Baier: History of Photography , p. 132.
  26. Wolfgang Baier: History of Photography , p. 135.
  27. James E. Cornwall: The early days of photography in Germany. 1839-1869. The men of the first few hours and their procedures. Verlag für Wirtschaft und Industrie, Herrsching / Ammersee 1979, ISBN 3-88369-120-8 , p. 38 ff.
  28. a b Wolfgang Baier: History of Photography , p. 81
  29. Steffen Siegel: Enclosed by art. Contested images. In: FAZ , March 19, 2021, p. 10.