Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was born in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, Val-d’Oise, France on the 18th of November 1787. He apprenticed in architecture, theatre design, and panoramic painting with Pierre Prévost, the first French panorama painter. Exceedingly adept at his skill of theatrical illusion, he became a celebrated designer for the theatre and later came to invent the Diorama, which opened in Paris in July 1822.

In 1829, Daguerre partnered with Nicéphore Niépce, an inventor who had produced the world’s first heliograph in 1822 and the first permanent camera photograph four years later. Niépce died suddenly in 1833, but Daguerre continued experimenting and evolved the process which would subsequently be known as the Daguerreotype. It has recently been discovered that Daguerre may have misled Niépce’s son about the value of the invention in order to better claim any profits from it individually. After efforts to interest private investors proved fruitless, Daguerre went public with his invention in 1839. At a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences on 7 January of that year, the invention was announced and described in general terms, but all specific details were withheld. Under assurances of strict confidentiality, Daguerre explained and demonstrated the process only to the Academy’s perpetual secretary François Arago, who proved to be an invaluable advocate. Members of the Academy and other select individuals were allowed to examine specimens at Daguerre’s studio. The images were enthusiastically praised as nearly miraculous and news of the Daguerreotype quickly spread. Arrangements were made for Daguerre’s rights to be acquired by the French Government in exchange for lifetime pensions for himself and Niépce’s son Isidore; then, on 19 August 1839, the French Government presented the invention as a gift from France “free to the world” and complete working instructions were published.

Daguerre’s agent in England applied for a British patent just days before France declared the invention “free to the world”. Great Britain was thereby uniquely denied France’s free gift and became the only country where the payment of license fees was required. This had the effect of inhibiting the spread of the process there, to the eventual advantage of competing processes which were subsequently introduced. Antoine Claudet was one of the few people legally licensed to make Daguerreotypes in Britain.

The Daguerreotype was the Polaroid film of its day: it produced a unique image which could only be duplicated by using a camera to photograph the original. Despite this drawback, millions of Daguerreotypes were produced. The paper-based calotype process, introduced by Henry Fox Talbot in 1841, allowed the production of an unlimited number of copies by simple contact printing, but it had its own shortcomings—the grain of the paper was obtrusively visible in the image and the extremely fine detail of which the Daguerreotype was capable was not possible. The introduction of the wet collodion process in the early 1850s provided the basis for a negative-positive print-making process not subject to these limitations, although it, like the Daguerreotype, was initially used to produce one-of-a-kind images—ambrotypes on glass and tintypes on black-lacquered iron sheets—rather than prints on paper. These new types of images were much less expensive than Daguerreotypes and they were easier to view. By 1860 few photographers were still using Daguerre’s process.

Daguerre died on 10 July 1851 of a heart attack in Bry-sur-Marne, 12 km (7 mi) from Paris. A monument marks his grave there. Daguerre’s name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel tower.

 

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