28 September 2010

The Daguerreotype portrait: the aesthetics of the real

The notion of what we may call an “artless art” was applied at different times, and with different intentions, to photography and the Daguerreotype. The image produced “directly” by nature, bypassing the intervention of the hand of the artist, was the object of amazement at first, and praised for its astounding fidelity of detail: an “art form” therefore that “no painter could ever match”. 

The popularization of the daguerreotype as the 19th century progressed, brought about by technical improvements allowing for the mass production of images and specially, for the first time, the mass production of portraits, produced also as a counter-current, a kind of  “over familiarity” with the daguerreotype portrait. And with it, a relative weariness about the repetitious, the unstudied, the narrowly documentary and "vulgar" or commonplace qualities (issues only partially explained by inherent  limitations of the Daguerreotype technique for portraiture, such as exposure time requirements, etc) of the vast majority of rapidly created images by a growing industry of photographic studios catering to the needs and the taste of the majority.

And yet, from these vast collections of portraits, both in Europe and in the US, works emerged in which something as a new sensibility and a "new aesthetics" related to the formal and expressive possibilities proper to the photographic medium was adumbrated, expressed or anticipated. These are portraits by known or anonymous artists and craftsmen of photography in which, at different levels, the photographer's empathy with the subject and his handling of the new medium sparks a new kind of vision and a new type of record of character, mood and circumstance able to transcend the limited circle and functions of the everyday image.

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima

 Gustav Oehme, Three Young Girls, Daguerreotype, c.1845


Unknown photographer, Portrait of Frederick Douglas, Daguerreotype, 1847


24 September 2010

A Camera Obscura in Venice

A Camera Obscura experiment in Venice from
 from BBC's 'Genius of Photography

Modern daguerrotypes

The following are examples of the art of the Daguerreotype as practiced today by specialized studios and labs.
From the site: TheDagLab.com. Here their Gallery of Portraits.  And here an explanation of the process

Malcolm Daniels on the Daguerreotype

Malcolm Daniels, Curator of the Dept of Photographs
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, talks about the Daguerreotype process
source: YouTube

21 September 2010

Antoine-Jean-François Claudet: the daguerreotype and the art of portraiture


The Geography Lesson, 1851. Stereoscopic daguerreotype

 Portrait of Fox Talbot by Claudet, c.1844

Born in Lyon, France, in 1797,  Antoine-Jean-Francois Claudet  settled in London in 1827. After a period as a successful  glass merchant, he learned the daguerreotype process from Daguerre himself. Claudet purchased the first Daguerreotype licence in England and established his own photographic studio on the roof of the Adelaide Gallery, behind St. Martin's church, London, from 1841 to 1851, later moved to 107 Regent Street.  He brought several technical improvements to the Daguerreotype process, including new sensitizing materials, exposure times and focal improvements, and is credit with the discovery that it was possible to develop prints under a red light, as well as the use of painted backdrops. He was appointed photographer to Queen Victoria in 1853.


Self-portrait with his son, 1853, stereograph daguerreotype
source: Getty.edu

The portrait machine before photography: the physionotrace

Le Comte de Yoldi
collection Veerle Van Goethem 

Invented by Gilles-Louis Chrétien in 1784, the Physionotrace allowed the rapid production of a profile portrait by an artist. The result was engraved on copper and the portrait multiplied by printing. The physionotrace  was a mechanical apparatus that worked as a large pantograph. It represented one step in the process of democratization of portraiture: from the miniature, the silhouette and the camera lucida drawing to photography. By facilitating the reproduction of a likeness in  a relatively short time, and therefore reducing the artist's effort, and, as a consequence, the price of portraits, it can be considered as a precursor of the photographic portrait as a mass phenomenon. Indeed, portraiture in the 19th century, starting with the Daguerreotype and the Calotype, was one of the main elements in the diffusion and popularization of photography, both as a new artistic and documentary form, and also as a commercial enterprise.