Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Belated Happy Birthday to Louis Daguerre

One night last week when I got home at two-something in the morning, I saw on Google’s front page a banner celebrating the birthday of Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of the (aptly named) daguerreotype, the first widely used photographic process. I was pleased to see Google honoring him in this way (a small gesture to be sure, forgotten tomorrow, but nevertheless, I have never been so honored) not only because photography helped usher in a new age for arts and documentation, which ultimately led to a whole new philosophy of the image and the perception of reality, but also because of unique characteristics of the daguerreotype itself which bear little similarity to later photographic processes. To be sure, the photograph would have happened without the developments of Daguerre. Henry Fox Talbot was developing (If you’ll forgive the pun) his Calotype process at roughly the same time. While he was beaten to the market by Daguerre, the Calotype, which used a photographic negative to print onto treated paper, was much closer to the processes that would eventually become standard and lead to an era in which the mechanical reproduction of the image (hats off to Walter Benjamin) would forever change our relationship to the work of art. At the time, however, the roughness of the paper resulted in a less sharp image than the pristine glass of the Daguerreotype. The Daguerreotype was a one of a kind. Unlike the Calotype, further prints could not be made with Daguerre’s process.

In describing the process, it has been said that the daguerreotype created a positive image that could not be printed, but this is misleading. The fact that the image is not quite a negative and not quite a positive is one of the reasons that daguerreotypes are so distinctive and, in my eyes, possess a greater, more haunting quality than later processes. Printed on glass, the image is essentially a mirror with a positive image appearing when the glass reflects a darker surface. Consequently, one of the notable aspects of the daguerreotype is that, depending on the angle from which it is viewed and what the glass reflects, it will appear as either a negative or a positive. Thus, it shows both the face and its reflection, the ghostly, shadowy image that one must at least consider for a second to be that piece of the soul of which the photograph robs its subject.

Today’s processes are completely different. The photographic negative has all but become a thing of the past. Kodachrome is dead. Digital photography has become so prevalent and so easy that most people carry cameras everywhere they go even if they don’t intend to. The terminology has changed. An image is no longer an “exposure,” but a “capture.” The “capture” implies catching something, arresting the subject in time, which is all well and good. I prefer, however, the “exposure,” which insinuates and openness, a revealing, both of the subject and of the film, which undergoes a physical change by being burned by the light.

Of course I am being hokey when I speak of the soul being stolen by the camera, but I do believe that the soul can be revealed and magnified in the photographic image. Also, I believe that the organic processes with all of their imperfections are better at exposing that soul than the digital processes that allow a greater malleability which often leads to a product that illuminates more about the photographer’s aesthetic sensibilities than the humanity of the subject.

To be sure, the daguerreotype was an unwieldy, slow process which was not conducive to catching moments of spontaneity. However, the image that was produced was one of great gravity and intensity. It was unique and unchangeable. Unlike most photographic processes, this picture did not lie and it did not beg to be reproduced. Daguerre did not seek to change the nature of the image. He only wanted to draw with light.