The photograph arrived in the United States from Paris in 1839 in the form of the daguerreotype.
Our visual sense of the past shifts at that point, from a stiff, formal tableau to something thicker,
fuller -- more like our own time. The photograph is rich with connotation; it is often said to
evoke the past, to provide a sense of the nineteenth century that extends beyond the borders of
the picture. I believe that this process is not accidental. Early photography was intentionally
used to evoke, to represent classes, occupations, cultures, and lives in the lights and shadows of
The daguerreotype was the culmination of a century-long quest to make permanent the image of
the camera obscura, a device to reflect a scene onto ground glass so that it could be drawn.
Solutions were discovered almost simultaneously by Louis Daguerre in Paris and William Fox
Talbot in England, but it was Daguerre's method, in which an image was fixed on a copper plate
coated with silver, that was dominant in the United States for nearly twenty years.(2)
The daguerreotype was extraordinary in its accuracy and delineation, but very slow to imprint. Therefore, any portrait that was made with the new medium had to be carefully posed. This technical limitation, I argue, led to a rich accumulation of nineteenth century motivations, anxieties, and visions in the daguerreotype. Daguerreotypes and daguerreotype portraits in particular were socially constructed -- constructed by their creators, their subjects, and their time.
My analysis of the social construction of the daguerreotype is closely intertwined with the history of the American middle class, which expanded and changed before and during the era of the daguerreotype. The daguerreotype can be used as a measure of middle-class notions of many things, from furniture and clothing to mourning ritual and work. The rich and the poor used the daguerreotype, certainly, but its development was marked by the presence of middle-class conventions, and by the rocky quest for a middle-class culture. Often, of course, considerations of middle-class life and culture involved those outside of the middle class.
The social construction of the daguerreotype was fueled by a widespread belief in its accuracy; it was this belief, I propose, that allowed, or even propelled, the movement of beliefs, prejudices, and conventions from the culture onto the photographic plate. From its earliest American reception, the daguerreotype was seen as the truest possible reflection of reality. As time went on, it also developed a reputation as a flawless judge of human nature, a perception closely linked to contemporary ideas of physical determinism.
The daguerreotype was the dominant photographic process of its era, but it was not the only one. William Fox Talbot's method evolved into the calotype. Other methods of the 1840's and 1850's included the ambrotype, the tintype, the crystallotype, and the collotype. Occasionally, my analysis may include one of these forms, unknowingly or not. I try to avoid referring inaccurately to them as daguerreotypes, but otherwise I ignore the issue; until the mid-1850's, when faster "wet-plate" processes were invented, all methods shared the characteristic that my analysis depends on -- the long length of exposure -- and all looked more or less the same.
If, as I claim, the daguerreotype portrait was constructed socially, we can learn a great deal from
a close examination of it. The daguerreotype carries with it layers of intention, conscious and
unconscious, on the part of photographer and subject. By peeling those layers back, by
dismantling the construction of the daguerreotype, we can examine the drives, ideas, and
assumptions of its makers and its time.
1. This is the first of many generalizations that are based on a not very-scientific sample of several hundred photographs. I include a number of reproductions of these photographs, setting them forth as, if not "typical," then as representative of the common themes, drives, and forms that I have found in that sample. Sometimes, I bolster my generalizations by citing or including a number of examples. In other cases, the reader will have to trust my judgment or turn to my sources of photographs, which include: Robert Flynn Johnson and Robert Harshorn Shimshak, The Power of Light; Daguerreotypes from the Robert Harshorn Shimshak Collection (San Francisco: The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986), Beaumont Newhall, The Daguerreotype in America (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1968), Harold Pfister, Facing the Light; Historic American Portrait Daguerreotypes (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978), Richard Rudisill, Mirror Image; the Influence of the Daguerreotype on American Society (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1971), Robert A. Sobieszek and Odette M. Appel, The Spirit of Fact; The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes, 1843-1862 (Boston: David R. Godine, 1976), and John Wood, ed., America and the Daguerreotype (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991).
2. Rudisill, Mirror, pp. 33-37. Ironically, Talbot's neglected method used a negative, which is now the norm.