One of our central thematic and design touchpoints for this production is the daguerreotype.

dag featureThe daguerreotype was the first widely available photographic process available to the public, beginning around the 1840s, and falling out of favor by the late 1800s when newer methods became cheaper and easier to manage. These antique photos are identifiable by their particular aesthetic qualities: the image appears as if on a mirrored background, and depending on the angle at which it’s viewed, can seem as if it’s been printed in negative. In reality, the image is printed on the silver-coated glass as a reverse — the side we view is the side that was originally facing inwards, towards the camera’s guts. Another quality of the daguerreotype is that most prints were one-offs. Whereas later negatives could produce numerous paper photographic prints, copying daguerreotypes was pricey, labor intensive, and rarely done [source].

Of interest to us, perhaps, is this unique quirk of viewing daguerreotypes: “The surface of a daguerreotype is like a mirror, with the image made directly on the silver surface. It is very fragile and can be rubbed off with a finger. The finished plate also must be angled so as to reflect some dark surface for the image to be visible. Depending on the angle viewed and the color of the surface reflected into it, the image can change from a positive to a negative. The viewer’s own reflection will be seen at the same time” [source].

At the time the process was introduced, photographing a subject in daylight required 10 full minutes of still exposure, making it difficult to effectively capture people (which also explains the particularly wooden poses and expressions in early daguerreotype portraits). Technical innovations soon sped the process up. By the mid-1800s, “for the first time in history, people could obtain an exact likeness of themselves or their loved ones for a modest cost, making portrait photographs extremely popular with those of modest means. Celebrities and everyday people sought portraits and workers would save an entire day’s income to have a daguerreotype taken of them” [source].

Both the Library of Congress and Harvard University have excellent collections of early daguerreotypes — view some highlights HERE and HERE.