Reflecting on Daguerreotypes

Posted on Tue., Oct. 31, 2023 by Linde B. Lehtinen, Ph.D.
A person holds a small hinged-case with gold and velvet accents around a glass oval. Behind the glass is a formal portrait of a man; the viewer’s reflection is visible in the glass.

Linde Lehtinen viewing a daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe in The Huntington’s collection. | Photo by Linde Lehtinen.

I always feel wistful when peering into a daguerreotype. Maybe it’s the sitter’s intense expression staring back at me. My fingers feel the weight and texture of the leather case that houses the delicate, magical photograph inside, and I think of all the different hands over the years that have held this portrait. I can see myself in the reflective surface and observe my features melding with the face from the past. I’m part interloper, part witness, in this intimate yet disorienting encounter.

There are more than 70 daguerreotypes in The Huntington’s collection, each with stories as unique as the daguerreotype process itself. French artist Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851) invented the technique, and the groundbreaking results were revealed in Paris at the French Académie des Sciences on Jan. 7, 1839. Shortly afterward, daguerreotype mania took hold, allowing many families to possess images of their loved ones for the first time. By 1853, up to 3 million daguerreotypes—primarily portraits, but also images of buildings, landmarks, and city and village scenes—were being produced in the United States each year.

A nine-step illustration of the daguerreotype photo development process, with written labels of supplies and methods.

Mark Osterman, Illustration of the daguerreotype process. Osterman is the former photographic process historian at the George Eastman Museum. | Illustration courtesy of Mark Osterman.

The diagram above illustrates each step in the creation of a daguerreotype. First, a silver-coated copper plate is buffed to produce a mirror-like surface and treated with iodine to make it light sensitive. The plate is then put in a box camera, the camera’s lens is aimed at a subject, and the lens cap is removed to let in light. The exposure time ranges from a few seconds to several minutes. To develop the image, the plate is removed from the camera and put in contact with mercury fumes before the image is fixed with sodium thiosulfate (also known as hyposulfite of soda, or simply “hypo”). Finally, the completed daguerreotype—demonstrating extraordinary detail and three-dimensionality—is matted and framed in a leather case lined with satin or velvet to protect the fragile contents.

Daguerreotypes differ from modern photographs because no negative is involved. The plate exposed in the camera is the same surface on which the image appears, so the plate is in the same room as the person being photographed. As a result, these irreplaceable objects can give one a sense of connection with the people whose likenesses they capture.

A golden-brown frame with red velvet accents surrounds an oval portrait of a seated man in a suit and tie.

William A. Pratt studio, Edgar Allan Poe, ca. 1849, daguerreotype, plate 8 x 11 cm. This is a daguerreotype copy of a daguerreotype portrait taken of author Edgar Allan Poe approximately three weeks before his death in Baltimore, Maryland, in October 1849. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Huntington’s daguerreotype portrait of the author Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) is one of the most haunting items in the collection. There are a total of eight known original daguerreotypes of Poe; The Huntington’s version has been verified as a copy. That is, it is a daguerreotype of one of those original daguerreotypes taken by William Abbott Pratt in Richmond, Virginia, approximately three weeks before Poe’s death in Baltimore in October 1849. Duplicates of the images began to be produced shortly after his death, and as many as 13 copy daguerreotypes have been recorded.

During Poe’s lifetime, cameras were not yet equipped with prism lenses, so they produced mirror—or reversed—images of their subjects. Poe portrait specialist Michael J. Deas has pointed out that the reversed image emphasizes the asymmetry of Poe’s face—and this uneven physiognomy was thought by some observers in the 19th century to indicate a lack of morality. The Huntington’s version is a copy of the original, so the mirror reversal is itself reversed, producing a truer image of Poe’s actual appearance.

A sepia tone image of a family of five in a gold-tone frame.

Unidentified family portrait of a woman, two teenage girls, a young man, and a boy, ca. 1840s–1850s, daguerreotype, plate 8 x 11 cm. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Huntington also collects daguerreotypes of many unknown individuals and families. The picture above captures some of the choices that subjects made about what to wear, what studio to go to, how large an image to purchase, whether to have hand-coloring applied, and what type of case to use to protect their portrait. Note the soft pink blush added to the cheeks, the similar dresses of the two female figures on the right, and the curvature of the brass mat enclosing the image along the right edge.

Close-up of a sepia-tone image of two parents and a child.

Detail of Unidentified family portrait of a woman, two teenage girls, a young man, and a boy, ca. 1840s–1850s, daguerreotype, plate 8 x 11 cm. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The photographer made decisions about lighting, posing, and the use of props. In the image above, the hands have been arranged carefully to create visual balance and convey familial ties. Some studios would even recommend how subjects should prepare, advising sitters to avoid a lot of activity before the session so that they would be fresh and calm for the picture. Children could be a challenge, and they often appear blurry because they could not sit still for long exposure times.

A golden-tone frame with red velvet accents surrounds a portrait of a man standing slouched in oversized clothes.

John B. Colton standing with hands in pockets, ca. 1850s, daguerreotype, plate 70 x 83 mm. John B. Colton (1831–1919) was a member of the Jayhawker Party of 36 gold miners who left Illinois for California in 1849. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Some daguerreotypes have perpetuated mistaken identities. For example, John B. Colton (1831–1919), a California gold rush miner, was for years thought to be a female named Mary McCloskey. Colton was a member of the Jayhawker Party, composed of 36 young men who left Illinois in 1849 in search of gold in California. He had the picture above taken in 1850 in San Francisco; the photographer later sold copies of it, describing it as the image of “a girl miner in boy’s clothing” to increase profits. The correct name was assigned to the image only after someone saw it on display in the late 1990s and recognized the person as Colton.

A golden-brown frame with red velvet accents surrounds a grayscale portrait of a man in a white shirt, with a black tie, vest, and hat.

Edgar Codding studio, John B. Colton seated, wearing hat, ca. 1850s, daguerreotype, plate 70 x 83 mm. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Huntington has other portraits of Colton that reveal different sides of his character—the half-length likeness above exudes Colton’s confidence and maturity. He would spend five years in miner camps and on rugged, dangerous trails, but you might not know that based on his bright eyes and slight smile.

In 1859, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes famously referred to the daguerreotype as “the mirror with a memory.” These miniature portals into 19th-century life preserve vital histories and allow viewers to engage in their own contact with the past.

You can learn more about how daguerreotypes are made and what makes them unique, see more examples of historic and contemporary daguerreotypes in The Huntington’s collection, and learn about what’s involved in cataloging and caring for them by visiting the Library’s companion research guide to the virtual presentation “The Care and Creation of Daguerreotypes.”

This event is part of the ongoing webinar series The Multi-Storied Library, presented by the Library’s Reader Services department.

Linde B. Lehtinen is the curator of photography at The Huntington.