photography, still: The Daguerreotype

Daguerreotypy spread rapidly, except in England, where Daguerre had secretly patented his process before selling it to the French government. The legal problems attending the pursuit of photography as a profession account in part for the widespread influence of amateurs (e.g., Nadar, the French pioneer photographer) on the early development of the medium. The popularity of the daguerreotype is attributable to two principal factors. The first of these was the Victorian passion for novelty and for the accumulation of material objects, which found its perfect paradigm in these silvery, exquisitely detailed miniatures. The second was the greatly increasing demand from a rising middle class for qualitatively good but—compared to a painter's fee—inexpensive family portraits. The cheaper tintype eventually made such likenesses available to all.

The principal shortcoming of the daguerreotype and its variants was inherent in its nature as a direct positive. Unique and unreproducible, it could not serve for the production of any image intended for wide distribution. This factor, combined with the lengthy exposure time necessitated by the process, restricted its function to portraiture. The vast majority of surviving daguerreotypes are portraits; images of any other subject are exceedingly rare. Nevertheless, for 20 years the daguerreotype completely overshadowed the greater utility of the calotype. In the United States, where it was equally popular, the daguerreotype was promoted by John W. Draper and Samuel F. B. Morse.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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