What is a daguerreotype?

The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic process (1839-1860) in the history of photography. Named after the inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, each daguerreotype is a unique image on a silvered copper plate.

In contrast to photographic paper, a daguerreotype is not flexible and is rather heavy.The daguerreotype is accurate, detailed and sharp. It has a mirror-like surface and is very fragile. Since the metal plate is extremely vulnerable, most daguerreotypes are presented in a special housing. Different types of housings existed: an open model, a folding case, jewelry…

Numerous portrait studio’s opened their doors from 1840 onward. Daguerreotypes were very expensive, so only the wealthy could afford to have their portrait taken. Even though the portrait was the most popular subject, the daguerreotype was used to record many other images such as topographic and documentary subjects, antiquities, still lives, natural phenomena and remarkable events.
European daguerreotypes are scarce. They are scattered in institutional and private collections all over the world. Many aspects of the daguerreotype still need to be discovered. They can help us to understand the impact of photography on Europe’s social and cultural history.

View a short movie on the daguerreotype process by the Nederlands Fotomuseum.


Equipment for making daguerreotypes

The video on a complete daguerreotypist set shows an original daguerreotype camera with a lens manufactured by the Parisian optical firm Lerebours et Secretan around 1850. This equipment belongs to the collection of the Physics Cabinet of the museum of the Fondazione Scienza e tecnica in Firenze. It is accompanied by a typical daguerreotype kit including a tripod, a box for treatment with mercury vapor, boxes for fuming with iodine and bromine, a soft buckskin pad for buffing the plates and a box of unexposed silvered copper plates ready for use.