Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre

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Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre

1787-1851

French Artist and Inventor

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre was born in 1787 to a middle-class family in Cormeilles, near Paris. He was an accomplished scenic designer who created the Diorama and invented the daguerreotype, the first practical method of making photographs.

Daguerre's artistic talent was evident at an early age. He served apprenticeships with a local architect and a stage designer in Paris. At 28 he was appointed scenic designer of the Paris Opéra. Two years later, he cofounded the Diorama, a theater in which enormous, lifelike murals and special lighting effects created the illusion of changing scenes. Audiences flocked to see famous sights such as the tomb of Napoleon, an alpine village, and Canterbury Cathedral.

To obtain the exact perspectives that were crucial for making these scenes appear real, Daguerre relied on a camera obscura. The camera, used by painters for centuries, was a box with a lens on one end and a mirror at a 45-degree angle on the other. The mirror reflected an image onto a glass on the top of the box, where it could be copied onto translucent paper. In time, Daguerre began to experiment with making the reflected images permanent.

Daguerre bought the lenses for his camera from Vincent Chevalier, a Parisian optician. Another of Chevalier's customers was Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), who had invented a method of recording the camera's reflected image on chemically treated paper and stone plates. After hearing about this invention from Chevalier, Daguerre wrote to Niépce. Over the next few years, the two men met in Paris and exchanged many letters before finally signing a partnership agreement. They collaborated via letters written in a number code devised by Daguerre to guard the secrecy of their experiments. In one letter, Daguerre suggested substituting silver iodide for the asphalt substance Niépce was using, a critical innovation that would shorten the time required to create an image from eight hours to several minutes. Daguerre also designed a new lens that produced sharper images.

After Niépce's death in 1833, Daguerre maintained a partnership with Niépce's son Isidore but conducted his research independently. Daguerre continued to improve his silver-iodide method by treating the exposed silver-iodide plate with mercury vapor. He gave credit to Nicéphore Niépce for the original invention but took credit himself for perfecting the process, which he named the daguerreotype in 1838. Daguerre's work impressed the Académie des Sciences so strongly that the French government offered to buy his invention. Eminent scientists of the day traveled to Daguerre's studio to see demonstrations. One of them, Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872), the American inventor of the telegraph, marveled at the daguerreotypes' "exquisite minuteness of...delineation."

In 1839 Daguerre's Diorama, his only source of income, burned to the ground. His supporters convinced the French government to grant a generous annual pension to both Daguerre and Isidore Niépce in return for their publishing the technical details of both the original research and the daguerreotype. Daguerre, although described as timid and embarrassed as a speaker, gave demonstrations and classes and wrote a brochure that became an international bestseller. A company was created to manufacture the equipment for making daguerreotypes, with one-half of the profits going to the manufacturer and the rest shared by Daguerre and Isidore Niépce. As the daguerreotype grew popular around the world, others made improvements that shortened the exposure time to forty seconds by 1841.

Daguerre retired to Bry-sur-Marne, a small village outside Paris. Behind the altar of the local church, he painted a mural that gave the impression of leading into an immense cathedral. He died of a heart attack in 1851.

LINDSAY EVANS

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Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), a French painter and stage designer, invented the daguerreotype, the first practical and commercially successful photographic process.

Louis Daguerre was born on Nov. 18, 1787, at Cormeilles-en-Parisis. Abandoning his architectural training in 1804, he turned to scene painting and became a pupil of I. E. M. Degotti at the Paris Opéra. In 1822 Daguerre and Charles Bouton developed the diorama, a large-scale peep show in which a painting on a large translucent screen was seemingly animated by the skillful play of light on each side. Daguerre made dioramas for 17 years.

Daguerre used the camera obscura to make sketches for his stage designs and, like so many others, wished to avoid the tedious tracing and fix the image chemically. After several unsuccessful efforts he learned in 1826 that J. N. Niépce was working toward the same end and had made some progress. A cautious correspondence followed, in which Niépce revealed his heliograph process, and in 1829 Daguerre and Niépce formed a partnership to develop the method.

Heliography depended on the hardening action of sunlight on bitumen and the subsequent dissolution of the soft shadow parts of the image. Using this method on a glass plate, Niépce had obtained and fixed a photograph from the camera obscura in 1826. But his aspirations went beyond a visible image to a photoengraved plate from which he could pull prints. This goal led to his using bitumen on silver-coated copperplates and then iodizing the silver revealed after dissolving the unexposed bitumen. The removal of the hardened bitumen produced a silver-silver iodide image. But Niépce went no further.

Building on his partner's foundation, Daguerre discovered the light sensitivity of silver iodide in 1831 but was unable to obtain a visible image. His discovery in 1835 that the latent image present on a silver iodide plate exposed for so short a time as 20 minutes could be developed with mercury vapor marked a major advance. Fixing was achieved in 1837, when he removed the unreduced silver iodide with a solution of common salt. Having improved Niépce's process beyond recognition, Daguerre felt justified in calling it the daguerreotype. He ceded the process to the French government. He revealed his discovery on Aug. 19, 1839.

Daguerre retired to Bry-sur-Marne in 1840 and died there on July 10, 1851. He had little more to do with the daguerreotype, leaving its improvement to others. It was perhaps the invention which most caught popular fancy in the mid-19th century, but it proved to be a blind alley in the development of modern photography.

Further Reading

Daguerre's life is fully documented in Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, L. J. M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype (1956). Their The History of Photography (1955) is an excellent overall discussion of photography. □

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Daguerre, Louis Jacques Mandé (1789–1851) French painter and inventor. In 1829, Daguerre and Niepce invented the daguerreotype, an early photographic process in which a unique image is produced on a copper plate without an intervening negative. Their process was announced in 1839, shortly before William Fox Talbot developed the calotype. See also photography