Monday, March 2, 2015

The Fiendish Mirror of Daguerre

The arrival of photography was not, as we conceive of it now, the arrival of the possibility of accurate representations of reality. The eyes of the times were as yet untrained to decipher the "real" within photographical realism. The Duke of Wellington complained that his nose looked too big (never mind that his nickname in the Army had been "Old Nosey"), and many public figures avoided photography as though it were the plague. In the cartoon shown here, Punch magazine satirized the "Interesting and Valuable Result" of a family photograph; to many at the time, the camera's eye seemed a lie, almost an instant caricature of the sitter's worst qualities.

The Daguerreotype, the very first commercial process, was expensive and time-consuming; early sitters had to remain still for at least three minutes, assisted in this task by a metal neck-brace. The cost of the photo was based on the size of the copper plate from which it was made; a "sixteenth plate" was the smallest, and cost the modern equivalent of more than $100; a quarter- or half-plate such as was ideal for a family portrait could cost well over $500. Daguerreotypes were also "one offs," in that the plate was the positive and (because opaque) could not be printed off. Yet at around the same time, William Henry Fox Talbot developed his "Talbotype" process (also known as a Calotype), using sensitized paper to produce a negative image. From this paper negative, any number of positives could be made, although since their medium was paper, the outlines were far less sharp than with Daguerreotypes. Finally, the invention of glass-plate negative processes such as the Ambrotype (also known as a Collodion Positive) created a medium in which many excellent copies could easily be made from a single negative. By the era of the American Civil War, inexpensive photographic processes such as the Tintype meant that very few soldiers went off to battle without leaving a photo behind, and quite often took a family photo with them. The final step in cheapness and availability was George Eastman's invention of flexible celluloid film, which was used both in still and in moving picture cameras; with its inexpensive "Brownie" box cameras and rolled film that could be processed anywhere, Eastman and Kodak (who later merged) made the "snapshot" a part of the American, and the world, landscape.

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