Light and dark: the daguerreotype and art history.

Author:Batchen, Geoffrey

The Dawn of Photography; French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 23, 2003-January 4, 2004, organized by Malcolm Daniel, with the assistance of Stephen Pinson

Malcolm Daniel et al., The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855, exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, $29.95 CD-ROM

The titles of exhibitions can sometimes be deceptive. Take, for example, The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855. Despite the promise of its title, this exhibition turned out to have little to say about the beginnings of photography, made no attempt to define what was "French" about French daguerreotypy, and never ventured to demonstrate what distinguished the daguerreotype from other, competing photographic processes. Instead, this exhibition did what exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are supposed to do: it gathered an extraordinary array of exceptional works and hung them in beautifully lit surroundings that allowed you to appreciate each picture's aesthetic qualities with a minimum of distractions. In short, it presented its chosen photographs as if they were precious art objects, explaining in an opening wall text that "this exhibition is the first to survey the best surviving examples of the art as practiced in the country of its birth." The question to be canvassed, then, is not whether this was a good exhibition--in the Met's own terms, it certainly was. The terms themselves--the art historical assumptions reproduced in every photography exhibition of this kind--are what are at issue. (1) Given the distortions that result, we have to ask ourselves: What does an exhibition of the "best surviving examples of the art" actually contribute to our understanding of the daguerreotype or, for that matter, the history of photography in general?

To answer such a question we first have to acknowledge the particular circumstances of this exhibition's formation. The 175 exhibits on display at the Metropolitan Museum represented a greatly reduced version of an exhibition of 340 objects held a few months earlier at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris--Le daguerreotype francais: Un objet photographique (May 13-April 17, 2003), (2) Restricted by the space available to him at the Metropolitan. Malcolm Daniel (who, with Quentin Bajac and Dominique Planchon-de Font-Reaulx. was also responsible for curating Le daguerreotype francais) and his assistant Stephen Pinson chose to take the kernel of the Musee d'Orsay exhibition and add a few choice pieces from American collections. They also retained many of the same broad categories for organizing the presentation of this material: invention, views of Paris, portraits, travel pictures, art, and science. Finally, they took the Musee d'Orsay's substantial, 432-page catalogue, had its essays translated into English, and issued them in a CD-ROM format rather than as a more traditional printed publication.

Losses and gains followed from each of these decisions. The exhibition, for example, was more streamlined and focused than the version seen in Paris, but each section included significantly fewer examples, and this, as the ensuing discussion will indicate, limited the historical insights it could offer. The Met's CD-ROM catalogue was a lot cheaper than it might have been as a book and contains features made possible only by digital technology (such as video footage, animations, and selective magnification of each image). However, it also produces a much clumsier and less convenient reading experience, lacking the old-fashioned tactile and visual pleasures associated with books. This is a catalogue you consult when necessary but never savor. In addition, the Met's catalogue for some reason neglected to include seven of the daguerreotypes in the exhibition and, in a missed opportunity to reach a larger audience, chose to print its anthology of historical documents only in the original French. (3)

Interestingly, a decision was also made to change the order of the essays. Stephen Pinson's historiographic commentary was moved from first to last position, allowing the Met's version of the catalogue to open instead with a brief video introduction by Daniel and Francois Reynaud's essay "The Daguerreotype as Object." This shift of emphasis from interpretation to appreciation, and from historical concerns to connoisseurial ones, was in keeping with the whole tenor of the exhibition, including its design. Each daguerreotype, for example, was hung on the wall in splendid isolation, equally spaced from the pictures on either side of it. This resulted in a display comprising long horizontal lines of objects, a monotonous kind of viewing experience, even if it did permit a close examination of individual images (magnifying glasses were available from the Met shop to facilitate this type of looking). Most important, it provided visitors with a rare opportunity to compare directly a range of French daguerreotypes, from some of the earliest plates made in 1839 to optimal examples from the 1850s.

The invention of the daguerreotype was officially announced in Paris on January 7, 1839, to wild acclaim. As one eyewitness recalled the scenes accompanying the release of a description of the process on August 19:

Truly a victory--greater than any bloody one--had been won, a victory of science. The crowd was like an electric battery sending out a stream of sparks. Everyone was happy to see others in a happy mood. In the kingdom of unending progress another frontier had fallen. Often it seems to me as if posterity could never be capable of such enthusiasm. (4) Viewers were immediately struck by the distinctive quality of the images this kind of photography produced. The image itself was formed on a sheet of copper that had been very thinly plated with silver and then thoroughly cleaned and polished. In a series of complicated maneuvres, this plate was suspended over iodine, leading to the formation of a light-sensitive solution of silver iodide on its surface. After being exposed to light in a lens-equipped camera for anywhere from thirty minutes to less than a second, the plate was once again suspended, this time in a large box over a heated dish of mercury. At this point, the image magically appeared, becoming visible as a range of tones formed in a fragile amalgam of silver mercury.

Having been fixed by immersion in a solution of either salt or hyposulfite of soda and washed in water, this image might then be toned with gold chloride, to improve its definition and permanence (an improvement in the process introduced in August 1840), before being placed behind protective glass and in a case or frame. All this took some skill and care and a preponderance of specialized equipment, costing as much as ten thousand dollars by today's values. The exhibition included a selection of this equipment (missing only the iodine fuming box), revealing each item to be a beautifully crafted wooden instrument. (5) The earliest daguerreotype camera, supplied by optician Alphonse Giroux and endorsed with the signature of the inventor of the process. Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, was a modified camera obscura. As the example in this exhibition demonstrated, it came without a tripod and with a back that accommodated only a horizontal position for its daguerreotype plate: Daguerre obviously intended the instrument to be placed on a portable table, with still life or landscape, rather than portraits, as its principal subject matter (Fig. 1).

Early daguerreotypes are a mirror reflection of what the camera saw, resulting in laterally reversed images (some later cameras incorporated mirrors in front of the lens, so that the image was re-reversed). (6) Not having a separate negative, each daguerreotype is unique. In fact, unlike most photographic processes, which yield a negative to be turned into a positive, the daguerreotype is simultaneously a negative and a positive, and each version of the image can be seen on the same plate, depending on the angle of view. This normally means having to move the plate back and forth in one's hand, looking for the right angle, or moving one's head around in front of the picture until the positive version emerges. It also means having to repress the vision of oneself staring back that appears in the mirrored surface of the silver plate.


For reasons not explained in the exhibition, French daguerreotypes tended to be presented in frames on the wall, rather than in cases meant for the hand (the preferred mode of presentation for most English and American daguerreotypes). (7) The lighting in the Metropolitan's galleries, in a scheme sensitively designed to accord with the horizontal buffing of the plates themselves, precluded the need for much head bobbing and largely eliminated any consciousness of the negative apparition that is usually such an inescapable part of the daguerreotype experience. This made it possible for visitors to peer directly into each image and examine it in detail. Given that daguerreotypes tend to be relatively small (a "full-plate" usually measures 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches), looking at each of the examples in this exhibition required a fairly intense visual effort on the part of its audience.

For those used to seeing daguerreotypes reproduced in black-and-white in books, viewing the real things proved a revelation. For some images, however, it was an impossibility. One or two of the earliest examples by Daguerre are today almost invisible to the eye, their delicate images having been largely erased during past efforts at conservation. Indeed, Daguerre's most reproduced image, usually titled Still Life and dated (for reasons never explained) to 1837, has become virtually illegible. This no doubt explains why it did not have a place in the Met's exhibition. Of those works included, it was also difficult to make out much of an image in the...

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