Born on November 18, 1789, Louis J. M. Daguerre began his career as an artist, serving first as an apprentice to the chief designer of the Paris Opera andlater working for nine years as an assistant to the Opera's panorama painter. In 1814 he exhibited his work at the Salon and later worked as an independent stage designer. He cofounded the Diorama, a means of entertainment based on enormous paintings on semi-transparent linen through which light was transmitted and reflected. The lighting could be manipulated to represent changes of seasons or times of day, and the realistic effects captivated audiences.
The simple camera obscura ("dark room") or pinhole camera, through which light falling through a small opening could be directed onto a screen to create aprecise image of something outside the box or room, helped spur Daguerre's interest in chemically fixing images. How, he wondered, could the camera obscura image be preserved?
In 1826 Daguerre learned that Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce also was researching means of chemically fixing images. Daguerre had not yet produced an image, unfixed or otherwise, while Niépce had succeeded in fixing the outlines of some objects on light-sensitive plates. In 1829 the two formed a partnership. Though Niepce died in l833, Daguerre continued the work they had begun, experimenting with copper plates and silver iodide, which he discovered was light-sensitive. Quite by accident he then discovered that mercury vapor could develop images. Daguerre had placed a silver iodide plate in a cabinet containing various chemicals, later discovering a clear picture on the plate;by process of elimination he determined that the miracle he had been seekingwas wrought by mercury vapor from a broken thermometer.
Exposure time for the photographs was about twenty minutes. In 1837 Daguerrefixed photographs permanently withsodium chloride, and after 1839, using J. F. W. Herschel's discovery,sodium thiosulfate . The process produced a shiny,inverted, and very clear image. By 1839 Daguerre had improved upon Niepce's initial discovery so much that he believed the process should rightly be namedthe daguerreotype. Daguerre published his findings and gave the rights to the daguerreotype to the French government in exchange for annuities tobe paid both to himself and to Niepce's son. He was concerned primarily withthe recognition of being the inventor, however, as he still agreed that the profits from the new process should be divided equally.
Daguerre also patented his process in England. In 1839 France presented Daguerre's findings to the world. In the same year Daguerre received a reward fromthe French government and his process was presented to the Institut de France.
The excitement the daguerreotype caused has been likened to that generated in 1969 when man first walked on the moon. The daguerreotype waslauded throughout the world, particularly in the United States, where it hadits greatest and longest-lived success. Daguerre himself produced thirty-twoeditions, in eight languages, of a manual describing his process. He also gave weekly demonstrations of the process at the Conservatory of Arts and Letters in Paris.
Nonetheless, the daguerreotype was not without shortcomings. Though its image was permanent, it was damaged by the slightest friction, since the imprinted layer was very thin. Furthermore, no copies could be made from a daguerreotype since the image was comprised of a single direct positive. The equipment required to produce daguerreotypes weighed about 110 lb.(50 kg), and all sensitizing and developing operations had to be done on thespot. For these reasons, open-air photography was cumbersome and rarely practiced. An additional drawback was the cost: a new metal plate was required foreach exposure.
By the 1850s the daguerreotype had been improved to its practical limit. In 1851, just four months before Daguerre's death, the wet collodion process invented by Frederick Scott Archer (l8l3-l857) replaced the daguerreotype as the most popular and most convenient method of photography. Daguerre died July 12, 1851.