In the 21st century, most of us have mobile phones, and most of those phones come equipped with a pretty good camera. We can take a photograph, add a filter, crop and edit, then share it with the world within seconds. Photography has not always been so easy and readily available.
After centuries of painstaking carving and painting to capture a likeness, in 1822, French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was the first person to make a mechanical image. He used a process called photo etching to create a permanent image on a metal plate, and was then able to use the plate to create copies of the image etched onto it.
He worked with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre to further the process before passing away in 1833, but Daguerre continued with the work. He finalised the process in 1837. In 1838 he took the first photograph of a person, by accident, while he was attempting to make a daguerreotype of a street scene in Paris. Moving pedestrians and carriages are too blurry to see, but one man who was having his boots cleaned on the street corner, stayed still long enough to be captured.
In exchange for a pension from the government he allowed France to present his method as a gift to the world. Daguerreotypes were very time-consuming and intricate to make. A plate of copper was coated with silver and polished to a mirror-shine, then exposed to halogen fumes to create a layer of light-sensitive silver halide which would bear the image. Initially, exposure could take up to 70 minutes, but was refined down to only a few seconds on a bright day.
The latent image was revealed by exposing the plate to mercury fumes. Although known to be dangerous, very little protection was taken when handling the mercury and there were reports of inattentive daguerreotypists developing mercury poisoning from it.
The plate was toned with gold chloride before being rinsed and dried, and the daguerreotypist could add colour washes to clothing and skin or gold tints to jewellery. The plate was then sealed behind a layer of glass and bound in a brass mat, before being housed in a wooden case covered with leather and padded with velvet or satin.
The resulting image could be seen as a positive or a negative, and had a high-shine finish, made easier to view by the padding in the case. It was a single-use image and it was not possible to make copies without creating a whole new daguerreotype. It was also quite expensive. In 1882, an advertisement for the process in the newspaper, The New Zealander, stated the daguerreotypist could take a photo in only five seconds; he charged between 10 shillings and two guineas, equivalent to $60 – $260 today.
Although it was expensive, the daguerreotype was the first publicly available photographic process. Its peak popularity was from the early 1840s to the mid-1860s. The Whanganui Regional Museum holds six in the collection, only one of which is named. This is Mrs J Allison, a relative of Dr James Allison who arrived in Whanganui from Glasgow in 1840.
Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.