Chapter One
The American Reception;
The Daguerreotype as Arbiter of Human Nature

The discourse that surrounded the daguerreotype, from its invention though the period of its dominance, centered on ideas of accuracy, legitimacy, and infallible perception. These ideas, which were intertwined with crucial issues of nineteenth century culture, helped to propel the daguerreotype into the center of that culture and to create for it a sense of power, even omniscience.

Samuel F. B. Morse was the first American to see a daguerreotype. Morse, a painter who is best known as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse code, called on Daguerre shortly after the unveiling of his discovery. On Morse's return to the United States, he provided to the New York Observer a letter he had written in Paris describing "one of the most beautiful discoveries of the age." Morse began his description, published on April 20, 1839, in artistic terms:

They are produced on a metallic surface, the principal pieces, about seven inches by five, and they resemble aquatint engravings(1), for they are in simple chiaro-oscura [sic] and not in colors....The exquisite minuteness of the delineation cannot be conceived. No painting or engraving ever approached it. For example: in a view up the street a distant sign would be perceived, and the eye could just discern that there were lines of letters upon it, but so minute as not to be read with the naked eye. By the assistance of a powerful lens, which magnified fifty times, applied to the delineation, every letter was clearly and distinctly legible, and so were the minutest breaks and lines in the walls of the buildings and the pavements of the street.

Morse was entranced with the accuracy of the new medium, but where a twentieth century observer might have distinguished that accuracy from the beauty and artistic merit of the photograph, he conflated them. Morse's observation, in this letter, that the daguerreotype was "Rembrandt perfected" is sometimes cited as evidence of his view of the daguerreotype as art;(2) in fact, the sentence opened a paragraph in which Morse mused on the application of the daguerreotype in science. The beauty of the daguerreotype was, for Morse, a product of its accuracy.

...this discovery is, therefore, about to open a new field of research in the depths of microscopic Nature. We are soon to see if the minute has discoverable limits. The naturalist is to have a new kingdom to explore, as much beyond the microscope as the microscope is beyond the naked eye.(3)

Morse seemed to have the idea that by placing a daguerreotype under a microscope, a scientist could see as far as the "discoverable limits" of nature. It did not occur to him that "exquisite minuteness of the delineation" of the daguerreotype might have limits; he implied here that the detail, and the accuracy, of the daguerreotype was essentially infinite.This idea -- that an infinitely powerful microscope could peer as far into a daguerreotype as a similar telescope could see into reality -- is wrong, of course, though Morse's own microscopes were not powerful enough to show it. The idea is a vivid symbol, however, of the depth and completeness that he saw in the daguerreotype.(4)

Even before daguerreotypes themselves followed Morse to the United States, they became symbols of accuracy and permanence. That accuracy, furthermore, began to be associated with the human mind and soul, months before the first portrait had been made. In June of 1839, Margaret Fuller wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

It is vain, dearest friend, to hope that any letter will write itself to you. Many float through my mind, but none will stay long enough to be fixed to paper, by Daguerreotype or otherwise.(5)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing to his wife-to-be, Sophia Peabody, in December of 1839, had absorbed the idea of the new technology as well (though he was not sure of the word for it). He used the daguerreotype as a measure of certain and refined accuracy, and indirectly connected it to the soul:

I wish there was something in the intellectual world analagous [sic] to the Daguerreotype (is that the name of it?) in the visible -- something which should print off our deepest, and subtlest, and delicatest thoughts and feelings, as minutely as the above-mentioned instrument paints the various aspects of Nature.(6)

The daguerreotype itself arrived in the United States on November 23, 1839, when Francois Gourand, an agent of Daguerre, arrived in New York. He arranged an exhibition of thirty plates taken by Daguerre and others.(7) The Knickerbocker magazine published an ecstatic review of the exhibition in its December issue:

We have seen the views taken in Paris by the 'DAGUERREOTYPE,' and have no hesitation in avowing, that they are the most remarkable objects of curiosity and admiration, in the arts, that we ever beheld.

The daguerreotypes were a form of art, according to Knickerbocker, and a remarkable one, but like Morse, the magazine was entranced most of all with their accuracy. The daguerreotype was not merely a representation of nature; it was a reproduction, a re-creation of it:

There is not a shadow in the whole that is not nature itself; there is not an object, even the most minute, embraced in that wide scope, which was not in the original; and it is impossible that one should have been omitted. Think of that!

The article celebrated the astonishing accuracy of the daguerreotype, its ability to evoke the essence of whatever sat in front of its lens, but warned of a limitation, perhaps with a touch of sarcasm:

...the DAGUERREOTYPE will never do for portrait painting. Its pictures are quite too natural, to please any other than very beautiful sitters.(8)

Daguerreotypists did, of course, turn soon enough to making portraits. The earliest daguerreotypes were not useful for portrait making because the exposure time was, in Daguerre's original process, from three to thirty minutes, depending on the light.(9) The first generation of American portraits -- taken by Samuel Morse, by Professor John Draper, and by Henry Fitz in the fall of 1839 -- took at least ten minutes to imprint. The portraits, therefore, of Morse's children and of Fitz were taken with eyes firmly shut -- it was simply impossible to avoid blinking for such a length of time.(10)

By early 1840, this problem had been largely solved by Draper, whose June 1840 portrait of his sister Dorothy (her eyes open) has often been cited incorrectly as the first portrait ever, and by Alexander Wolcott, who opened the world's first portrait studio in March 1840, in New York City. Draper's portrait was taken in sixty-five seconds (a reasonable, if not altogether comfortable) period for the sitter. This would remain the standard, more or less, until the daguerreotype was replaced; it would also always be necessary to support the sitter's head with an iron stand on a pole, as Draper did.(11)

The candor that Knickerbocker believed might frighten plain subjects away was treasured in daguerreotype portraits, for the most part. The daguerreotype was unflaggingly honest; it was authentic in a way that human portrait-makers could not approach. This authenticity was often attributed to the impartial sun, which had replaced the erratic human painter as the agent of creation. Emerson wrote in his journal in 1841:

The Daguerreotype is good for its authenticity. No man quarrels with his shadow, nor will he with his miniature when the sun was the painter. Here is no interference, and the distortions are not blunders of an artist, but only those of motion, imperfect light, and the like.(12)

Nearly every observer emphasized that the daguerreotype was the product of the sun. Philadelphia photographer Marcus Aurelius Root called all photographs "heliographs,"(13) implying that the sun, Helios, was responsible for the outcome. An article in Godey's Lady's Book in 1849 called daguerreotyping "the sunbeam art," and noted that, in the daguerreotypist's chair, the subject's "features are caught and fixed by a sunbeam."(14) The Knickerbocker called them "sun-pictures" in 1853, and said of Paris daguerreotypists:

Photographers they are, but not painters; for it is Phoebus himself who dashes you off with his 'pencil of light,' and for the sum of ten francs you can have a good specimen of his hand and of your own face, miniature-size.

In the same article, the hand of the sun was linked directly to the accuracy of the medium. In this tale, a pair of ladies come into the studio, "one pretty, the other very plain":

'I have had my portrait painted very often,' says the plain one, 'but some how it never was like. All the artists said I was remarkably difficult to catch. I am quite impatient to try the success of this new process.'

'oh, there can be no mistake about the success,' rejoined the pretty one; 'the likeness must be accurate, since it is an actual reproduction of nature. Is it not so, M. Mouille?'

'Oh yes, it's a reproduction decidedly -- that is to say, you know -- allow me to explain -- in fact, it's a reproduction.'

And the gentleman with the ear-rings nods his head didactically, as he delivers himself of this lucid explanation.

'What a very extraordinary fact,' remarked the plain lady, 'that one's image can be self-impressed upon a plate by the power of light! It is the power of light that does it, M. Mouille, isn't it?'

'Permit me to explain the process, madam. It's the light of the sun -- no, the light of science, concentrated by optics and chemistry, combined with the light of the sun, that obtains so beautiful an effect. In fact, as you have justly remarked, it's the power of light that does it.'

The pretty woman is quite pleased with her portrait, but after several attempts, the plain woman cannot be satisfied. Finally, she storms out; the truth -- hidden by the human portrait-painters who evaded her plainness by telling her she was "difficult to catch" -- is all too clear when drawn with the "pencil of light."

And if you observe closely the persons who depart with their portraits, you will perceive that, for the most part, they do not look pleased; the plain moral of which is, that the daguerreotype does not flatter, and it is hard to have to put up with the plain, wholesome, bitter, unadulterated Truth.(15)

The article made a show of commiserating with the unfortunate subject, but the tone was of real glee. The mood was similar in T.S. Arthur's article in Godey's Lady's Book. He related a story of a woman who would not admit that the freckles in the daguerreotype were on her face as well, and like the "plain woman" above, makes the hapless daguerreotypist, too embarrassed to tell her of her blemishes, take a second portrait,

but with no better success, for the all-discovering light will make no discrimination--the little black specks are still there, and the lady goes away with a poor conceit of the Daguerreotypist, who, though he could make the light work for him, could not force it to record anything but the truth.(16)

An article in Littell's Living Age in 1846 compared the daguerreotypist, forced by his medium to be honest, to the obsequious painter, as The Knickerbocker did, and concluded that daguerreotyping was, as an agent of accuracy in representation, a force for good.

It is slowly accomplishing a great revolution in the morals of portrait painting. The flattery of countenance delineators, is notorious....Everybody who pays, must look handsome, intellectual, or interesting at least -- on canvas. These abuses of the brush the photographic art is happily designed to correct. Your sun is no parasite.(17)

The reader will detect an odd vehemence here; why were mid-century Americans so excited about the ability of the daguerreotype to prevent people from misrepresenting their physical attributes? The explanation may lie in a multifaceted cultural movement of the nineteenth century, based around physical imitation and authenticity.

The development of a market society, and the urbanization and social and physical mobility that accompanied that development, meant that more and more Americans were surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Identity could no longer be set by family, community, or occupation -- all of those things were increasingly fluid. Americans, having lost the familiarity of the small town, strained to find new ways to identify strangers.

In several ways, this need was met with a belief that the essential identity of a person could be found in his or her physical attributes. Popular physical determinist "sciences" like phrenology and physiognomy burst into prominence, hailed for their ability to establish identity and to predict human personality. Anthropology and ethnology, which were based in part on theories of racial and physical classification, were driven primarily by an attempt to justify slavery and racial separatism, but also served to lend an air of legitimacy to these movements.(18)

In 1846, the Littell's Living Age article cited above affirmed the ability of the daguerreotype to reveal human nature in unambiguous, physiological terms:

Daguerreotypes properly regarded, are the indices of human character. Lavater judged of men by their physiognomies; and in a voluminous treatise has developed the principles by which he was guided.(19) The photograph, we consider to be the grand climacteric of the science.(20)

We can see a direct link between the daguerreotype and physical determinism as early as 1844, when Eliza Farham, a prison administrator and a strong believer in phrenology, asked a then-little-known Matthew Brady to take a series of daguerreotypes of prisoners and reform school inmates. His plates were made into lithographs and used for a new American edition of a book called The Rationale of Crime, a phrenological study of the criminal nature by an Englishman named Marmaduke B. Sampson.(21)

Louis Agassiz, a Harvard anthropologist and physical determinist, also used daguerreotypes to confirm his theories. Agassiz, a Swiss emigre and one of America's leading scientists, and his contemporary Samuel George Morton used skull measurements and other physical evidence in an attempt to prove that blacks are a separate species from (and of a lower order than) whites.(22) In 1850, Agassiz commissioned a North Carolina daguerreotypist named J.T. Zealy to photograph local slaves as evidence of his theories,(23) and once, he told Matthew Brady, he had spent two hours in the Brady studio studying the "physiognomies of public men."(24)

The themes of accuracy, character, and genetic background as revealed by the daguerreotype met in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1851 novel, The House Of The Seven Gables. Holgrave, the daguerreotypist of the story, uses daguerreotypes to reveal the hypocrisy of a central character, Judge Pyncheon, and solves the mystery of his death with a well-timed photograph. The daguerreotype reveals that the Judge's death was caused by a genetic imperfection in the Pyncheon family -- and symbolically, by a deeply hidden moral flaw -- that only the daguerreotype can see. Early in the novel, Holgrave foreshadows these discoveries:

There is a wonderful insight in heaven's broad and simple sunshine. While we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even if he could detect it.(25)

For the most part, of course, the daguerreotype was used for more mundane purposes than those in these three examples. These uses of photography, however, served to create a cultural image of the daguerreotype as an arbiter of human nature, as a reflection of the mind and soul. This idea clearly passed into the collective vocabulary of mid-century America. In 1843, Emerson urged a writer for his journal the Dial to make a travel piece not only a "picture of the Islands" but a "daguerreotype of the observer's mind and character."(26) In the same year, Frances Osgood, a sentimental writer, called a series of character sketches "Daguerreotype Pictures" to indicate their insight into human nature, though there was no mention of photography within.(27)

The precise accuracy of the daguerreotype was limited in important ways; contemporary discourse, enthralled with the medium, did not emphasize these shortcomings. The daguerreotype could not capture natural color, for instance, and more importantly, the daguerreotype was limited temporally -- the length of the exposure time meant that, as Morse put it in his famous letter, describing a Paris street view, "moving objects are not impressed."

The boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages, was perfectly solitary, except for an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were of course compelled to be stationary for some time....Consequently his boots and legs are well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion.(28)

The lack of natural color(29) and the exclusion of movement in the daguerreotype were dealt with in similar ways. In both cases, daguerreotypists and their audience created and accepted an almost arbitrary system of representation as accurate.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Many daguerreotypists used a tinting method developed in the early 1840's to give color to their photographs. The tint has largely faded from surviving daguerreotypes (and they are almost always reproduced in black and white), but it is clear in the few tinted daguerreotypes that we can examine (see Figure 1) that the color is anything but "realistic." It is cartoonish, really; if it represents natural color, it is only by analogy. That is, it asks the viewer to make an artificial, non-intuitive connection between the tint and the color of the real world.

The tinted daguerreotype was moderately successful; it was required by most subjects, and widely used, though reluctantly, according to the Photographic Art-Journal, by the best daguerreotypists.(30) The conventions that developed to represent movement and the passage of time were much more successful; they remain second nature for every photographer.

Every daguerreotype, as we have noted, had to be posed; each was a frozen moment of time. But daguerreotypists did not simply present that moment as it occurred. In various ways, daguerreotypist and subject attempted to make that frozen moment representative of a larger moment, even of a life. Poses created social time -- with the representation of an occupation, a hobby, a conversation, or a boxing match -- and social space -- with the representation of a parlor, a workplace, or an outdoor scene (usually using a painted background). These constructions were often crude, even transparent, but it didn't matter. The conventions of posing, by the same strange, communal act of recognition that made tint into color, were accepted as accurately portraying the life and the inner essence of the subject.

Table of


1. A form of etching carried out on copper plates.

2. See, for example, David Stannard, "Sex, Death, and the Daguerreotype," in Wood, America, p. 97, in which Stannard contrasts Morse's characterization of the daguerreotype with Oliver Wendell Holmes's description, "the mirror with the memory."

3. Quoted in Samuel Prime, The Life of Samuel F.B. Morse (New York: Appleton and Co., 1875), pp. 400-401.

4. Edgar Allan Poe and Henry David Thoreau agreed. Poe, who published a short article praising the invention in January of 1840, believed that the daguerreotype was "infinitely (we use the term advisedly) infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands." Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1841 that a "microscope may be applied to [a daguerreotype] as the spyglass" to nature (Edgar Allen Poe, "The Daguerreotype," in Alan Trachtenberg, ed., Classic Essays On Photography [New Haven: Leete's Island Books, 1980], p. 38, and Henry D. Thoreau, Journal, Volume 1: 1837-1844, ed. John C. Broderick et al [Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1981], p. 243).

5. Ralph L. Rusk, ed. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume III (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939).

6. Thomas Woodson, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson, Nathaniel Hawthorne; The Letters, 1813-1843 (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State, 1989), p. 384.

7. Rudisill, Mirror, pp. 58-59.

8. "THE 'DAGUERREOTYPE,'" The Knickerbocker, December 1839, pp. 560-561.

9. Louis Daguerre, "Daguerreotype," in Tractenberg, Classic, p. 12.

10. Prime, Life, p. 404 and Rudisill, Mirror, pp. 61.

11. Rudisill, Mirror, pp. 60-62. This method of support is in contrast to the method of the early Belgian portrait-maker Jobard, who put his sitters' heads into a kind of clamp attached to a chair.

12. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, eds., Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), p. 87.

13. See M. A. Root, The Camera and the Pencil, 1864 (Pawlet: Helios, 1971)

14. T.S. Arthur, "American Characteristics: The Daguerreotypist," Godey's Lady's Book, May, 1849, p. 352.

15. "A Few Photographs," The Knickerbocker, August 1853, pp. 137-142.

16. Arthur, Characteristics, p. 355.

17. "Daguerreotypes," Littell's Living Age, June 20, 1846, p. 552.

18. John D. Davies, Phrenology: Fad and Science (New Haven: Yale, 1955), pp. 12-29, tells us that phrenology first reached the United States in earnest in the 1820's, and reached its peak in 1838-1840, when the phrenologist George Combe toured the United States. See also Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women (New Haven: Yale, 1982), esp. pp. 1-55, on the problem of identity for mobile young men.

19. Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) was the author of Physiognomy; or, the corresponding analogy between the conformation of the features and the ruling passions of the mind.

20. "Daguerreotypes," Littell's Living Age, p. 552.

21. Madeleine B. Stern, "Matthew B. Brady and The Rationale of Crime; A Discovery in Daguerreotypes," Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, July 1974, pp. 127-135.

22. This theory was called polygeny, and was widespread among American scholars -- it was often referred to as the "American school" of anthropology.

23. Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), p. 53, and Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeaure of Man (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981), pp. 42-72.

24. James D. Horan, Matthew Brady; Historian with a Camera (New York: Crown Publishers, 1955), pp. 11-12.

25. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (Cutchogue, New York: Buccaneer Books, 1987), originally published in 1851, p. 85, pp. 262-264 and throughout. See also Trachtenberg, Reading, pp. 52-53, and Rudisill, Mirror, pp. 123-125, on the significance of this book.

26. Rusk, Letters, p. 199.

27. Rudisil, Mirror, p. 73.

28. Prime, Life, p. 401. This surreal effect was only possible because of the long exposure time of Daguerre's original invention; in a later daguerreotype, the same view would have shown passersby and the missing body parts as blurs, rather than excluding them altogether. But the point -- the curious inability of the medium to capture bodies in motion -- remains.

29. The search for color photography was a great drama of the daguerrean age. A daguerreotypist named Levi Hill apparently succeeded in producing a primitive color photograph in the late 1840's, but with an accidental combination of chemicals, and he could never recreate the effect (Newhall, Daguerreotype, pp. 97-106).

30. Newhall, Daguerreotype, p. 96.