Self-Portrait by Louis Daguerre

“I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.”

Before the Polaroids, the Hasselblads, the 35mm cameras, Photoshop and Instagram was Louis Daguerre.

As with all great discoveries, the invention of the daguerreotype, the first commercially successful form of permanent photography, named after its inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, occurred by accident. A French scene painter, theatre designer, inventor of the diorama and physicist, Daguerre was experimenting with a camera obscura, an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen, when he made his groundbreaking discovery. Camera obscura is a naturally occurring phenomenon where the light that comes from the outside through a pinhole creates an inverted image of an outside scene on an opposite wall of a dark room. Daguerre used the contraption as an aid to painting in perspective when he hit upon the idea of permanently retaining the still image.

In 1835, after several years of experiments, he put an exposed silver-coated copper plate in a chemical cupboard only to later find out to his surprise that the latent image has developed. The fact that a latent image could now be developed made it possible to reduce the exposure time from eight hours to thirty minutes! Still, quite long you might think, but this discovery revolutionized the very process of photography. Now people could take pictures of other people, not only landscapes or still lives.

Look at this daguerreotype self portrait Daguerre took of himself and pay attention to the extraordinary detail: his sinewy hands, creases on the vest, strands of curly hair and shiny eyes. Although Daguerre was not the first to produce a permanent photograph (his business partner Nicéphore Niépce introduced it first with a heliograph in 1826), Daguerre’s method significantly improved the image quality and reduced exposure time, which opened up incredible opportunities in photography.

Daguerre went public with his invention in 1839 and presented his images at the French Academy of Sciences. A smart businessman he offered very general descriptions of the working mechanics, leaving out all of the important details. The French Government later acquired the rights to the invention, promising in exchange a continued financial support of Daguerre and Niépce’s son Isidore. On 19 August 1839, the French Government presented the invention as a gift from France “free to the world”.

The Parisian Boulevard de Temple was among Daguerre’s first mages. If you look at the bottom left corner you will see two figures, a shoe shine man and his client, they are widely considered to be the first humans captured in a photograph.

The first hight speed photographs were captured by Eadward Muybridge.

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