Roger Cicala: Imaging Before Photography, Part III — The Showman and the Sheriff: Digital Photography Review

Enter the Showman

In my last article, we discussed the first image makers, up until the late 1820s when Niepce had actually been able to make images using a camera obscura and silver plates coated with Bitumen of Judea. On his way to England, Niepce had been introduced to a most interesting man, Louis Daguerre, by Charles Chevalier, the lensmaker they both used.

Daugerre was in almost every way the opposite of Niepce. Unlike the landed Niepce, Daguerre was the son of a clerk. Because of Louis’ artistic talent his father had apprenticed him to an architect hoping that he would make something of himself. Louis had other ideas and ended up working as an assistant Stage Designer for the Paris Opera. In those days, working in the theatre had all the social standing of waiting tables at a biker bar: Louis’ parents were not pleased, especially when rumors of his wild partying with the theater crowd reached them.

Portrait of Louis Daguerre, 1844. Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot. Image is in the public domain.

Despite his partying (or perhaps because of it — he ended up invited to a lot of society parties because he was known as a superb dancer) Daguerre became fairly successful. He eventually become a stage designer himself and was quite well reviewed.

He and his friend, painter C. M. Bouton, began painting large Panoramas together. Often Daguerre would sketch the scene in a camera obscura, then he and Bouton would enlarge the sketch to a giant panorama. These huge and complex paintings were popular and profitable. Some were mounted in rotundas so patrons could walk around surrounded by the scenery. For others the patrons sat in a theater and the scenes were ‘played’ for them on rollers. It wasn’t unusual for such a panorama to be 10,000 square feet of painted canvas.

Franz Roubaud. Raevsky Battery During the Battle of Borodino (1812). This is just a small section of the actual panorama.

In 1822 Daguerre and Bouton invented an entirely new type of entertainment, the Diorama. This involved panoramic scenes, often painted on both sides of translucent linen with canvases as large as 70 X 45 feet. The audience was small (about 350 persons) and stood on a massive turntable. The illumination of each scene was manipulated using skylights, windows, and mirrors. Stagehands might change the angle and color of lighting, illuminate first the front and then the back side of the canvas, or highlight different areas.

This gave a very realistic and 3-dimensional effect of a scene changing over time; perhaps changing from daylight to moonlight, making the observer feel he was moving within the scene, or even changing the scene itself. A simple jpg cannot begin to reproduce the effects achieved in the diorama, but a few of the original paintings do still exist, like the ones below.

The Effect of Fog and Snow Through a Ruined Gothic Colonnade. Louis Daguerre, 1826.
Interior of Rosslyn Chapel. Louis Daguerre, 1824.

Then the rotunda turned to view a second image while the first image was changed. Usually, four different scenes were viewed in a show lasting 15-20 minutes, and the charge was two or three times what a theatre ticket cost.

The Diorama was a smashing success; well attended, critically acclaimed, and profitable enough that Daguerre and Bouton opened a second Diorama in London. While an entire staff was required to paint the canvases and manage the show, it was recognized that Daguerre’s skill with the camera obscura was a key factor in producing the realism of the diorama.

The Partnership

Despite being a superb artist (almost all the others involved in developing the early cameras seem largely motivated by their inability to draw and paint), Daguerre began attempting to make photographic images with his camera obscura. He apparently met with little success and in 1826 began writing Niepce asking about his experiments. Niepce was not very interested at first, but he did visit Daguerre on his way to England in 1827 and was very impressed by the Diorama. He actually wrote to Daguerre after his unsuccessful trip to England, that he planned on writing up his experiments and publishing them. Perhaps knowing of Niepce’s financial distress, or perhaps just because it was his nature, Daguerre wrote back urgently:

As regards your intention of publishing your method, there should be found some way of getting a large profit out of it before publication . . . but for that is needed a degree of perfection that can only be reached in several years.

Probably because of the realism of the Diorama, Niepce felt Daguerre had a far better camera obscura than he did — in fact he wrote that he could only make further progress “if I had a camera as perfect as M. Daguerre’s”. Daguerre, on the other hand, knew that Niepce was further along with preserving actual images. The two formed a 10-year legal partnership in 1829, disclosing their methods to each other and agreeing to share any profits they eventually made equally. Oddly, it was a partnership of nothing. Daguerre’s cameras were no better than Niepce’s. Niepce’s technique of using Bitumen of Judea was a dead end, incapable of the resolution needed for photography.

The partnership was unsuccessful in other ways too. Niepce accomplished very little before passing away a few years after the partnership was formed. His son, Isidore Niepce inherited his portion of the business, but had no interest in “heliography” as Niepce called it. Daguerre was supposed to provide the financing for the business, but he himself filed for bankruptcy in 1832. While the diorama remained popular, producing the shows was very expensive and there was more and more competition for the entertainment franc.

Still Life with Plaster Casts. Arguably the oldest preserved Daguerreotype. Louis Daguerre, 1837.

Daguerre continued on his own, with little funding, less help, and almost no knowledge of chemistry. He placed silver plates in iodine vapors, creating a film of light sensitive silver iodide on the plate. Exposing the plate to light gave a faint image, although not one that was readily visible, even after ‘fixing’ the exposure in salt water.

It is said he finally found the method of creating clear images by accident: one night he left an exposed plate in his chemical cabinet. The next morning a bold, strong image had formed. Daguerre realized vapors from one of the chemicals had caused the improvement in his image and began testing them one by one. When all of his chemicals failed, he finally realized the agent that improved his images was mercury vapor from a broken thermometer.

By 1837, he was consistently making very clear photographs, what we now call Daguerreotypes. He exposed his light-sensitive silver iodide plates in a camera obscura for 4 to 10 minutes, then the plate was removed, washed, and ‘developed’ in a box containing mercury vapor. The mercury blended with the exposed silver iodide creating a strong image. (There was no Environmental Protection Agency in those days so you could do this kind of thing.) The plate was finally washed in salt water and then plain water to stop the developing process.

Not So Simple, Really

Daguerre considered his final technique simple and straightforward. I’m not sure many of us would agree. For example, these are the steps to prepare a single silver plate before exposure:

  1. Sift pumice through muslin onto the plate, then rub in a circular motion with a piece of cotton soaked in olive oil.
  2. Remove the oil and grit with a clean cloth. Apply nitric acid in water, covering the plate with an even layer.
  3. Polish again, lightly, then place the plate on a rack above a burner with the polished side up. After about 5 minutes the plate will acquire a whitish film.
  4. Lay the plate on a clean surface and polish away the whitish layer.
  5. Repeat the acid wash two more times, finally cleaning well with a piece of cotton and place the plate in a plate holder.
  6. Spread iodine in the vaporizing box, covering it with muslin to equalize the vapor. Place the plate in its holder facing down. The coating takes between 5 and 30 minutes, depending on a variety of factors, after which the silver surface should become golden yellow.
  7. If the plate becomes purple, rather than yellow, the iodine exposure has been too long, and the process should be restarted at step 1.

Daguerreotypes are positive images: the silver plate has the fixed image ready to be framed. The amount of detail they could record is phenomenal — even given the poor lenses of the day a Daguerreotype is extremely sharp, even when viewed under a magnifying glass. However, each Daguerreotype is a single, unique image: further prints are not possible.

Landscape with Cottage. Daguerreotype by Isidore Choiselat. 1844.
Daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau. Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856.

And the Sheriff

William Henry Fox Talbot was the classic landed English gentry: he had too many names, inherited a country estate, and received a classical education at Cambridge where he was named the 12th Wrangler.

Aside of the Day:

‘Wrangler’ doesn’t mean cowboy. The word originated from the Middle English ‘wrangeln’ meaning to argue, struggle, or dispute. At Cambridge, it’s awarded for honors in mathematics examinations. At the end of the examinations, ranks from Senior Wrangler down through 12th Wrangler are given; lower scores receive 2nd and 3rd class degrees. The person with the lowest passing marks was awarded the Wooden Spoon (opposite of a silver spoon, I suppose).

My favorite story about Wranglers is that of Philippa Fawcett, who in 1890 not only obtained the top score in the Mathematical exams, she absolutely crushed everyone else by 13 percentage points. That a woman had the highest scores caused a major meltdown amongst the Cambridge faculty and in typical fashion for the times, they awarded the Senior Wrangler title to the highest-grading male student. The did have the decency to describe Phillipa Fawcett’s rank as “above the Senior Wrangler” and she went on to have a distinguished academic career. Philippa’s mother, interestingly, was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who was perhaps the most prominent leader of the English women’s suffrage movement at the time.

Back to Our Boy Talbot

Talbot eventually became a Member of Parliament and High Sheriff of Wiltshire (Like Wrangler, a Sheriff in the 1800s was a somewhat different office in England than in American Westerns: it involved mostly collecting taxes and being the official representative of the King for that area.) He dabbled in the arts and sciences and was elected to the Royal Society, England’s equivalent to the French Academy of Sciences.

William Henry Fox Talbot in 1864 by John Moffat.

Talbot, while vacationing in Italy, drew many images with his camera obscura and in 1833 began to experiment to see if he could capture such images without drawing. He began by following the work of Wedgwood and Davy, coating paper with silver nitrate and silver chloride and making contact prints. Talbot at first claimed he had no idea of Wedgewood and Davy’s work, and later said he only found out about them after beginning his own experiments. Several of his friends and family, however, indicated Talbot was well aware of their work.

A Fruit Piece. William Henry Fox Talbot, 1845. Placed in the public domain by The Metropolitan Museum.

Despite Talbot’s desire to take more credit than he should (this is a recurring theme of his life) it is clear he definitely advanced the process on his own, discovering he could fix his prints in a solution of potassium iodide, making fairly permanent images (they still faded, but much more slowly). Talbot was making images with a camera obscura by 1835, probably before Daguerre. He kept his work private, showing pictures only to a few friends.

The images he made were not nearly as sharp and detailed as Daguerreotypes (although of course Talbot didn’t know that). However, Talbot’s process, unlike Daguerre’s, created a negative image on glass or translucent paper which allowed multiple positive prints to be made from each image.

An Ancient Door in Magdalen College, Oxford. William Henry Fox Talbot, 1843, paper print from a paper negative. Image placed in public domain by the National Gallery of Art.

And a Few Others

Talbot and Daguerre didn’t know a thing about each other’s work. Nor did they know about several others who were trying to create images. One had the absolutely awesome name of Hercules Florence (his actual name was Antoine Hercule Romuald Florence, but I’m sticking with Hercules and so should you). In 1825, he joined the crew of the French ship Marie Thereze as an illustrator and naturalist bound for Brazil. He stayed in Brazil and found work in a printing shop.

Later, he was hired as naturalist / illustrator for a Russian expedition into the Amazon. After the expedition (around 1830) he planned a book about his Amazon travels and began searching for a way to print the more than 200 illustrations he had made. He and a pharmacist friend, Joaquim Correa de Mello, began trying to make images using a camera obscura and silver salts. They succeeded in making permanent images by 1833, some years before Daguerre and Fox Talbot.

Retrato de Hércules Florence, image made in the 1870s, probably a self-portrait.

Hercules even termed the word “photographie” to describe this work. However, he lived in remote Brazil and did not publish his findings elsewhere, so he never got any credit, despite independently inventing the same process Fox Talbot was working on.

Another Frenchman, Hippolyte Bayard (they had great names in those days, didn’t they?) developed a separate process. He soaked paper in silver chloride, then potassium iodide (Talbot’s fixative) and then exposed them immediately in the camera. This created images on paper rather than silver, lowering the cost. The images were positive, not negative, and of good quality. Like all the others he didn’t tell anyone about his work and as a lowly clerk in the Ministry of Finance, he didn’t have the connections of his better-known competitors.

Hippolyte Bayard, self portrait salt print. 1847

And Then It Hit the Fan

So, there you have the status of the camera and photograph as of 1838. Several different people were well on their way to “inventing” photography: The bankrupt French Showman Daguerre and the disinterested son of his original partner. An English nobleman who, at this moment, had put aside his photography experimentation to write a book on archeology. Another Frenchman working in obscurity in Brazil, and a French clerk who developed photography as a hobby.

Of the group, only Daguerre had the drive and connections to push his invention forward. In 1838 he presented a new contract to Isidore Niepce, making it clear that he considered the invention his own, but would transfer it to the partnership only if the process bore his (Daguerre’s) name alone and that Daguerre would receive a majority of whatever income it generated. Niepce signed the new contract, although he considered it unfair — but in reality, Daguerre had done almost all of the work.

“The little work it entails will please the ladies”

Daguerre then planned to sell 400 subscriptions to the secrets of the invention at 1,000 francs each and began limited exhibitions of the Daguerreotypes he had made. He received little interest. It is said his reputation for creating optical illusions in his Diorama made people suspicious of his methods. And he probably did exaggerate the ease of the process, claiming “The little work it entails will please the ladies” and the process was “most suitable for those of the leisured classes”. Obviously, the term ‘politically correct’ hadn’t really caught on in 1838.

However, Francois Arago, the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy of Science was smitten with Daguerre’s images and proposed that the French Government should purchase the rights and methods of the invention, and then make it freely available “as a gift to the world”.

On January 6, 1839, the Gazette de France announced:

. . . an important discovery of our famous painter of the Diorama, M. Daguerre. This discovery partakes of the prodigious. It upsets all scientific theories of light and optics, and it will revolutionize the art of drawing. M. Daguerre has found the way to fix the images which paint themselves within a camera obscura so that these images are no longer transient reflections of the objects, but are fixed and everlasting impressions which, like a painting or engraving, can be taken away from the objects.

On January 8th, Argo presented Daguerre’s images to the French Academy of Sciences and by January 19th the announcement had been repeated in the major papers across England and Europe. It would seem that precedence had been established, Daguerre would be rewarded, and photography would become mainstream.

But the chaos had just begun: Talbot read of Daguerre’s invention and dropped everything else to make a claim that he’d been first. Bayard, Florence (and a few others) would also make claims that the invention was theirs, one most humbly and the other with full-blown dramatic overkill. Sir John Herschel, a British scientist and chemist, would make immediate improvements to both Daguerre’s and Talbot’s processes within days of hearing about it. Not to mention the French government was a bit slow in paying Daguerre, and ever the sharp businessman, he proceeded to make his own arrangements.

In other words, the next article, describing the first year of photography, will be total drama!


  • Bankston, John: Louis Daguerre and the Daguerreotype. Mitchell Lane. Delaware.
  • Gustavsson, Todd: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital. Sterling, 2009.
  • Daguerre’s Instruction Manual. In Daguerreotypes. www.
  • history of photography
  • Marien, Mary W: Photography. A Cultural History. 3rd ed. Prentice Hall. 2011
  • Newhall, Beaumont: The History of Photography. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2009
  • Osterman, Mark and Romer, Grant: History of the Evolution of Photography. In: Peres, Michael (Ed.): The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th, ed. Elsevier, 2007.
  • Tims, John and Elmes, James: The Diorama in Great Britain in the 1820s, History of Photography, Autumn 1993, Vol.17 (3), pp. 284-295
  • Thomas, Sophie. “Making Visible: The Diorama, the Double and the (Gothic) subject.” Gothic Technologies: Visuality in the Romantic Era. Ed. Robert Miles. 2005. Praxis Series. 31 Jan. 2010.

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