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The solar eclipse of July 28, 1851 was the first correctly exposed photograph of a solar eclipse, using the daguerreotype process.
A daguerreotype (original French: daguerréotype) was the first large scale commercial photographic process.
It was developed by Louis Daguerre together with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Niepce had produced the first photographic image in the camera obscura using asphaltum on a copper plate sensitised with lavender oil that required very long exposures.
The image in a Daguerreotype is formed by amalgam i.e. a combination of mercury and silver. Mercury vapor from a pool of heated mercury is used to develop the plate that consists of a copper plate with a thin coating of silver rolled in contact that has previously been sensitised to light with iodine vapour so as to form silver iodide crystals on the silver surface of the plate.
Exposure times were later reduced by using bromine to form silver bromide crystals.
The image is formed on the surface of the silver plate that looks like a mirror. It can easily be rubbed off with the fingers and will oxidise in the air, so from the outset daguerreotypes were mounted in sealed cases or frames with a glass cover.
When viewing the daguerreotype, a dark surface is reflected into the mirrored silver surface, and the reproduction of detail in sharp photographs is very good, partly because of the perfectly flat surface.
Although daguerreotypes are unique images, they could be copied by redaguerreotyping the original.
The daguerreotype was the first publicly announced photographic process and while there were competing processes at the time, the accepted scientific etiquette of the time was that discovery was attributed to first published. All of the initial photographic processes required long periods for successful exposure and proved difficult for portraiture. The daguerreotype did become the first commercially viable photographic process in that it was the first to permanently record and fix an image with exposure time compatible with portrait photography, but this was after extra sensitising agents (bromine and chlorine) were added to Daguerre’s original process.
Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838, by Daguerre (the first picture of a person). The image shows a busy street, but because exposure time was more than ten minutes, the traffic was moving too much to appear. The exception are the persons at the bottom left – a man who stood still getting his boots polished along with the shoe-shine boy.
Artists and inventors, since the late Renaissance, had been looking for a mechanical method of capturing visual scenes. Previously, using camera obscura, artists would manually trace what they saw.
Previous discoveries of photosensitive methods and substances—including silver nitrate by Albertus Magnus in the 1200s, a silver and chalk mixture by Johann Heinrich Schulze in 1724, and Nicéphore Niépce’s bitumen-based heliography in 1822—contributed to development of the daguerreotype. In 1829 French artist and chemist Louis J.M. Daguerre, contributing a cutting edge camera design, partnered with Niépce, a leader in photochemistry, to further develop their technologies.
After Niépce’s 1833 death, Daguerre continued to research the chemistry and mechanics of recording images by coating copper plates with iodized silver. in 1835 Daguerre discovered—after accidentally breaking a mercury thermometer—a method of developing images that had been exposed for 20–30 minutes. Further refinement of his process would allow him to fix the image—preventing further darkening of the silver—using a strong solution of common salts. The 1837 still life of plaster casts, a wicker-covered bottle, a framed drawing and a curtain—titled L’Atelier de l’artiste—was his first daguerreotype to successfully undergo the full process of exposure, development and fixation.
The French Academy of Sciences announced the daguerreotype process on January 9, 1839. Later that year William Fox Talbot’s announced his calotype. Together, these inventions mark 1839 as the year photography was invented.
Instead of Daguerre obtaining a French patent, the French government provided a pension for him. In Britain, Miles Berry, acting on Daguerre’s behalf, obtained a patent for the daguerreotype process on August 14, 1839. Almost simultaneously, on August 19, 1839, the French government announced the invention as a gift “Free to the World.”
The best-known image of Edgar Allan Poe was a daguerreotype taken in 1848 by W.S. Hartshorn, shortly before Poe’s death.
The daguerreotype, along with the Tintype, is a photographic image allowing no direct transfer of the image onto another light-sensitive medium, as opposed to glass plate or paper negatives. Preparation of the plate prior to image exposure resulted in the formation of a layer of photo-sensitive silver halide, and exposure to a scene or image through a focusing lens formed a latent image. The latent image was made visible, or “developed”, by placing the exposed plate over a slightly heated (about 30°C / 90°F) cup of mercury. Daguerre was first to discover and publish (in the publication of the process and the English patent of 1839) the principle of latent image development.
The mercury vapour condensed on those places on the plate where the exposure light was most intense (highlights), and less so in darker areas of the image (shadows). This produced a picture in an amalgam, the mercury washing the silver out of the halides, solubilizing and amalgamating it into free silver particles which adhered to the exposed areas of the plate, leaving the unexposed silver halide ready to be removed by the fixing process. This resulted in the final unfixed image on the plate, which consisted of light and dark areas of grey amalgam on the plate. The developing box was constructed to allow inspection of the image through a yellow glass window to allow the photographer to determine when to stop development.
The next operation was to “fix” the photographic image permanently on the plate by dipping in a solution of hyposulphite of soda, often known as “fixer” or “hypo”, to dissolve the unexposed halides. Initially Daguerre’s solution to this step was to use a saturated salt solution but later adopted Hershel’s suggestion of Sodium thiosulphate, as did WHF Talbot.
The image produced by this method is extremely fragile and susceptible to damage when handled. Practically all daguerreotypes are protected from accidental damage by a glass-fronted enclosure. It was discovered by experiment that treating the plate with heated gold chloride both tones and strengthens the image, although it remains quite delicate and requires a well-sealed enclosure to protect against touch as well as oxidation of the fine silver deposits forming the blacks in the image. The best-preserved daguerreotypes dating from the nineteenth century are sealed in robust glass cases evacuated of air and filled with a chemically inert gas, typically nitrogen.
André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri and Jules Itier in France, and Johann Baptist Isenring in Switzerland, became prominent daguerreotypists. In the United Kingdom, however, Richard Beard bought the British daguerreotype patent from Miles Berry in 1841 and closely controlled his investment, selling licenses throughout the country and prosecuting infringers. Among others, Antoine Claudet and Thomas Richard Williams produced daguerreotypes in the U.K.
Daguerreotype photography spread rapidly across the United States. In the early 1840s, the invention was introduced in a period of months to practitioners in the United States by Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph code. One of these original Morse Daguerreotype cameras is currently on display at the National Museum of American History, a branch of the Smithsonian, in Washington, DC. A flourishing market in portraiture sprang up, predominantly the work of itinerant practitioners who traveled from town to town. For the first time in history, people could obtain an exact likeness of themselves or their loved ones for a modest cost, making portrait photographs extremely popular with those of modest means. Notable U.S. daguerreotypists of the mid-1800s included James Presley Ball, Samuel Bemis, Abraham Bogardus, Mathew Brady, Thomas Martin Easterly, Jeremiah Gurney, John Plumbe, Jr., Albert Southworth, Augustus Washington, Ezra Greenleaf Weld, and John Adams Whipple.
This method spread to other parts of the world as well. In 1857, Ichiki Shirō created the first known Japanese photograph, a portrait of his daimyo Shimazu Nariakira. This photograph was designated an Important Cultural Property by the government of Japan.
The daguerreotype is commonly, erroneously, believed to have been the dominant photographic process into the late part of the 19th century in Europe. Evidence from the period proves it was only in widespread use for approximately a decade before being superseded by other processes:
- The calotype, introduced in 1841; a negative-positive process using a paper negative.
- The collodion wet plate process, introduced in 1851; a negative-positive process using silver salt impregnated collodion poured from a bottle onto a glass plate.
The collodion wet plate process was used to produce ambrotypes on glass and tintypes or ferrotypes on a coated iron plate.
- The ambrotype, introduced in 1854; a positive-appearing negative image on glass with a black paper backing.
- The tintype or ferrotype, introduced in 1856; a positive-appearing negative image on an opaque metal plate.
The intricate, complex, labor-intensive daguerreotype process itself helped contribute to the rapid move to the ambrotype and tintype. The proliferation of these simpler and much less expensive photographic processes made the very expensive daguerreotypes less appealing to the average person (although it remained very popular in astronomical observatories until the invention of glass plate cameras). According to Mace (1999), the rigidity of these images stems more from the seriousness of the activity than a long exposure time, which he says was actually only a few seconds (Early Photographs, p. 21). The daguerreotype’s lack of a negative image from which multiple positive “prints” could be made was a limitation also shared by the tintype and was not a factor in the daguerreotype’s demise until the introduction of the calotype. The fact that many of those to use the process suffered severe health problems or even death from mercury poisoning after inhaling toxic vapors created during the heating process also contributed to its falling out of favor with photographers. Unlike film and paper photography however, a properly sealed daguerreotype can potentially last indefinitely.
In May 2007, an anonymous buyer paid 576,000 euros (~775,000 USD) for an original 1839 camera made by Susse Frères (Susse brothers), Paris, at an auction in Vienna, Austria, making it the world’s oldest and most expensive commercial photographic apparatus.
Value in the marketplace
Some daguerreotypes which have maker’s marks, such as those by Southworth & Hawes of Boston, or George S. Cook of Charleston, South Carolina, Gurney, Pratt and others, are considered masterpieces in the art of photography. A daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe was featured on the PBS show Antiques Roadshow and appraised at US $30,000 to $50,000.
Antebellum College Life
Earliest known daguerreotype of a student group, ca. 1853-57
Beginning with only one student in 1795, the university became one of the largest colleges in the nation during the antebellum period. Before the Civil War, its enrollment peaked at 460 students in 1859, making it second only to Yale. During the 1850s, thirty to forty percent of students each year were from outside North Carolina. Most out-of-state students came from Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and Louisiana.
- Learn more about antebellum student life in True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina, a digital publication by Erika Lindemann.
This paper (contents found below) was written Spring Semester, 1999, under Michael Gagnon, in the History Department, at the University of Georgia, as a requirement for completion of History 4000, “Social History of Antebellum America.” The views expressed in this paper are strictly the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the instructor, the department, nor the university.
The Daguerreotype: From a Novelty Item to a National Phenomenon
Before the end of 1840, daguerreotype portraits were in business in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia; by the end of the decade, nearly every town had at least one studio. The daguerreotype was in general use until the mid-1850s when the ambrotype, the tintype, and the carte-de-viste superceded it. Benjamin R. Stevens and Lemuel Morse of Lowell, Massachusetts received a patent in 1842 for various coloring techniques. Thusly, daguerreotypes were coated with varnish or gum and tinted with paints or pigments. This type of daguerreotype proved to be the mainstay. In July 1845, James A. Cutting received a patent for his counter-reflection of the daguerreotype’s silver surface. The ambrotype, as it was called, was actually a thin collidion negative on glass whose image reversed itself in light when the glass plate was placed on a black surface. Later this photograph was mounted in daguerreotype cases and was sold in varying sizes. These ambrotypes were thought of as immortal and imperishable and were the most popular form of photography until 1860.6 Henry Fox Talbot also derived his independent method of painting pictures with light called the talbotype or the calotype. This specific method used a tiny camera and paper sensitized with silver nitrate instead of metal. This procedure achieved translucent, postage stamp sized images, and gave pictures a softer, less distinct image than the daguerreotypes. The advantage of the talbotype was that it could be duplicated to any number of prints. Unfortunately, the talbotype generated little interest in America.7 However, James Wallace Black of Boston used Talbot’s collodion process and sparked interest in the American public to envision what could be achieved artistically in the future, thus receiving a fairly positive reaction.
By 1860, with the onset of the Civil War, photography reached new heights. Matthew B. Brady, a New Yorker of Irish decent, was determined to cover the events. He was present at the first major battle of the war, Bull Run, and he sent his photographers into the field to capture the different sectors of war activity. However, because of the slow film emulsion of the period, action war shots were impossible. Cumbersome cameras, glass plates, tripods, and the darkroom wagon inhibited the photographers a great deal; instead they focused on camp life, the marshaling of troops and material, and the scenes of destruction of life and poverty caused by the war.8 Brady’s portrayal of war was graphic, and it was quick to spark the public’s awareness of the great loss of American lives. This achievement is also remembered as the first true form of photojournalism and widespread communication through photographs. Also during the war, soldiers began to carry around small portraits of loved ones, and those at home kept keepsakes of their menfolk. Jeremiah Gurney’s carte-de-viste portraits were mounted on print paper and cut to a small size, 4 inches by 2 1/2 inches, and were met with extreme public approval until their passing popularity due to the tintype.9 This tintype was a blend of several other photographic processes and was placed on a thin sheet of iron covered with black lacquer. Like the daguerreotype, the tintype was a one-of-a-kind picture that could not be reproduced in quantity, but tintype artists used multi-lens cameras and registered up to 36 images on a single plate. This method outlasted most other processes and remained throughout the end of the century.10 After the war, many photographers moved west and became involved in the opening of the new frontier. Some found employment recording change while others documented the frontier before changes altered the environment or the inhabitants. Others concentrated on capturing the beauty of the West. When the Union Pacific Railroad began to push west from Omaha, Nebraska in 1866 and linked up with the Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory Point in Utah, photographers such as Alexander Gardner and Captain Andrew Joseph Russell were called upon to endure the harsh climate and working conditions of the rough terrain. Tom O’Sullivan, who had worked with Brady during the war, secured a position with Clarence King’s Fortieth Parallel Survey, which studied every aspect of the new region.11
The daguerreotype arrived in the Athens area and was met with great curiosity and enthusiasm in 1841. An example of the national interest in the daguerreotype is present in the July 23, 1841 issue of the Southern Banner of Athens, Georgia that speaks of the arrival of J. H. Miffin’s work. The advertisement states: “…Our citizens will have an opportunity of witnessing the wonderful operation of the Daguerreotype, in permanently fixing the reflections of objects, and especially in copying the human face with the most perfect accuracy.”12 Miffin’s pieces cost only three-fourths as much as other daguerreotypes, and several advertisements were placed this week in the paper to spark public interest. In March of the next year, a Mr. Paulsen placed articles in the same paper for his portraits that were said to be “correct” and “satisfactory.” Paulsen was staying with a Mr. Sheats, and his specimens were held at the Book Store of Messers A. Chase & Co.13 Later that month in an article titled, “For Our Southern Banner,” Mr. Chase, the editor of the paper, speaks of Mr. Paulsen’s work by stating:
“(Our citizens) will be astonished at the degree of perfection to which this art has been brought, giving as it does, an exact copy of the face of the sitter, without flattery or caricature.
A good likeness of a friend is almost invaluable. He may leave us, he may die, and then how priceless the transcript of the features we once loved to look upon-the expression that was so dear. We cannot conceive how any, who can afford the expense, and there are few who cannot, can be willing to be without the portraits of those they esteem and love and hope that the present opportunity for obtaining them will not be neglected.”14
Later in the year, a Mr. Harrison and Mr. Porter exhibited their work for a few days at the rooms on College Avenue, under the Whig office.15 Visits from artists continued in Athens. By March 13, 1845, colored daguerreotypes surfaced in the area with the arrival of S. Broadbent. Again, all likenesses warranted perfection and complete satisfaction. Broadbent presented his work at King’s store in Mitchell’s new building. In May, an article was written to focus on Broadbent and his work. It stated:
“Believing it almost unnecessary-yet we can’t forbear calling the attention of our citizens to the wondrous Daguerreotype portraits now performed in our town, and asking if they have been to see them. If not, let them go and judge for themselves. Let them examine in person, and then if they are no then induced to sit immediately to the wonder-working artist, they must be more than human…. Mr. Broadbent has been long known as an accomplished miniature Painter in the Southern States …. His Daguerreotype likenesses are finished performances; and we only repeat the tribute of all who know him…”16
Mentions of the daguerreotype are present throughout the remainder of 1845 and 1846; however, with the arrival of the ambrotype and tintype, these daguerreotype exhibits are not mentioned again in the Southern Banner.
The entire state of Georgia shared Athens’ enthusiasm. In the 1840s photographers of varying degrees plied their new trade–or art– in the large towns and cities and some rural areas. Daguerreotype artists from the North usually toured the South during the winter months because business was slow at home. Photography improved in the 1850s, and the ambrotypes and tintypes of 1854 and 1856 soon proliferated, ranging from five dollars to only 12 1/2 cents, depending on the quality. Before the Civil War, however, getting photographed was a serious endeavor and formal affair. Only rarely does an informal photograph hint at the informal side of some Georgians’ personalities.17
Without large-scale public response, daguerreotypes would have been no more than charming novelty items and the picture makers only temporary hobbyists; nevertheless, the art of the daguerreotype caused an enormous national response, and impacted every individual in America in some way. The degree of public interest can be inferred by the rapid growth of professional activity in making daguerreotypes. It is estimated that by 1850, 2000 operators were professionally serving a population of approximately 23 million. By 1860, the U.S. Census listed 2650 daguerreotpyists and 504 other types of photographers.18 Daguerreotypists made available public visions of the character of America that no person could discern by any amount of personal observation. They were knowingly trying to comfort Americans with their own national interest; they acted as teachers to the public, and their art informed the public of taste. They recorded facts as truthfully as they could to define the spirit that existed under the visible surface. Ultimately, these artists taught Americans to be more completely American, and they recorded the changes that took place. Because he himself was a part of American life, the daguerreotypist brought about this ideal and was curious about the basic nature of his country. He followed the truth of nature, was equipped by interest and situation to discover and inform, and was moved by disposition and economics to be a universal man in defining the truth of life as he saw it through the lens of his camera.19
The daguerreotype medium provided a means of self-definition to each person, individually for himself and for his loved-ones. Photographs outlasted the limits of time, place, and mortality to offset the impermanence of human life and experience. There was a great deal of sentimental impulses that the daguerreotype was almost ideal to satisfy, giving immeasurable aid and memory. Daguerreotypes became catalysts for a variety of responses embodying the sentimental mood of the nineteenth century. These mirror pictures provided symbolic gratification that were looked at as magical; they were objects of emotion that humans reacted to almost as directly as they did to the sitter of the picture. Also, individuals interpreted their lives in new ways after the arrival of the daguerreotype, and the nation developed an awareness of itself because of millions of daguerreotypes and the affective symbols that they contained. A further resource for the growing popularity and public impact is the number of the pictures actually produced: by the peak of 1853, over three million daguerreotypes were being produced annually.20
By the 1850s Americans shared a nearly universal experience in having their picture taken. Small-scale studios were developed everywhere and were generally alike. Most separated their “operating rooms” from their reception rooms and chemical finishing areas, so that a fair investment was needed before establishing a practice. These studios were usually on the top floors of buildings, because of the need for skylights, but street entrances were made to be inviting and appealing to spectators. Americans outdid the rest of the world in the elaboration of their galleries and lavished on them, providing a proper atmosphere. Visitors were made to feel that an aura of a special occasion hovered over having one’s likeness made. The goal of the artist was to present something finer than the visitor’s everyday surroundings. Considerable attention was given to preparing the public even before they arrived at he studio. People knew that it was necessary to dress in colors that did not reflect too much light. For a lady, a dress needed to be of a dark material and lace work or embroidery was preferred to add beauty to the picture. Men were asked to wear dark vests and a cravat. Children wore plaid, dark-striped or figured dress. The image of the family was not to be spoiled. Children were in extreme danger of being over-exposed because of their small size; fine craftsmanship was difficult. Expressions on the faces of sitters also posed a problem. Afraid of blinking, many fixed stares occurred.
With the determination of many to project artificial personalities of the perfect American, the daguerreotypist faced many challenges. Such behavior on the part of the sitter is related to other attributes of national life-much as the studio reflected the d�cor of American homes. Taste of personal images echoed in other phases of life. Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, comments on this relationship. Along with the assorted curiosities and modernities crowding each other in American parlors, he reflects on:
“Spread-open daguerreotypes of dim children, parents, cousins, aunts, and friends, in all attitudes but customary ones; no templed portico at back, and manufactured landscape stretching away in the distance-that came later, with the photograph; all these vague figures lavishly chained and ringed; metal indicated and secured from doubt by stripes and splashes of vivid gold bronze; all of them much too combed, too much fixed up; and all of them uncomfortable in inflexible Sunday-clothes of a pattern which the spectator cannot realize could have ever have been in fashion…” 21
Twain’s remarks reflect another national characteristic of the pictures themselves-the practice of visually concentrating attention on the sitter. Aside from jewelry or an occasional plant or book (used as specific symbols), elimination of pictorial elements that would distract from the main subject was a general practice. Also, some sitters felt prey to various weaknesses. It is observed to be a distinct connection between the type of falsity the sitter wished to portray and his basic psychology; a searching portrait could reveal something of the inner person. For example, persons surrounded by books were said to have a literary weakness, or the musical weakness, which usually was thought of when an individual held a musical instrument or was pictured in front of a piano. Thus it was the duty of the daguerreotypist to activate suitable moods and to provide congenial situations to help prepare the subject for the fullest rendering of his character in the final portrait.22 The key to many personal dissatisfactions was the lack of a good appearance that one idealized for him, which was not reflected in front of the camera lens. Unfortunately, one’s self-image was probably not accurate, and the camera saw with the same eye of recognition that did the sitter’s relatives and friends forever, like it or not. This urgency of affection to overcome physical and mortal boundaries of distance and time gave the daguerreotypist his most significant duty to the public; many felt that it was a sacred obligation. In 1854, the Webster brothers of Louisville, Kentucky declared it the legitimate business of the daguerreotypist to:
Take the form and features of “the loved ones at home,” in such a way that when the eye rests on the “shadow” of some departed friend it will become full of soul, which will cause the curtain of time to “roll back” and permit us to “view our school boy days.”
In some instances an image of a beloved person was carefully preserved for a lifetime as a token of feeling. Children were particularly apt subjects for this aspect of the daguerreotype. Infants were often the targets of daguerreotypes in case they soon passed away. Often, if a portrait had not been made before the child died, measures would be taken to provide the most accurate picture possible, and posthumous portraits became fairly common. In addition to being satisfied with sometimes-inadequate images, the public was grateful for any image at all. The daguerreotype was everywhere, and it was present in every aspect of every American’s life.23 The daguerreotype became the intersection of time and place consciously frozen. It cheated reality by halting the motion of time. Of those things selected to be photographed, society tended to select the same things and the same images with the same messages-those of being true American individuals.
From the early years of photography in the 1840s to the end of the nineteenth century, thousands of men and women tried their hand at this art in the immense and varied area west of the Mississippi River and created an experience that was much different than photography elsewhere. William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan, Eadweard Muybridge, Carelton E. Watkins, Adam Clark Vroman, and Ansel Adams may be the best known of all of the western image-makers. Many of these people had humble beginnings, and some were well to do when they entered the west; others had lives somewhere in-between. Together, though, they were known as the “jacks-of-all-trades,” as noted by a writer in 1858:
“Today you will find a Yankee taking daguerreotypes; tomorrow he has turned painter, the third day he is tending grocery, dealing out candy to the babies for one cent a stick.”24
Some were explorers, using their cameras to document and reveal the West’s unique geography while others were pioneer journalists who recorded the progress of the transcontinental railroad and the general transformation of the frontier. One researcher lists over 2600 photographers in California alone.25 To succeed in western photography, blatant self-promotion was essential. Each photographer ballyhooed his product as being the latest and the finest imaginable. The traveling photographer, in particular, used flashy, insistent notices in local newspapers, with banners and broadsides. Photographers announced their exact arrival and their exact departure, so that it was impossible to be unclear on the limits of the coming engagement. Usually gregarious and popular, the traveling man provided color and excitement-often in the form of the most recent gossip-to isolated western communities. As time passed, the photographer took his place in the everyday fabric of the frontier, such as the blacksmith or the butcher down the street. When the community became more established, the business of photography became more formal. Many tent photographers took advantage of new towns to settle in permanent locations as resident gallery owners. Still, many combined their photography with other occupations. For example, Jonathon Eldridge ran a furniture store and undertaking parlor and published the weekly newspaper in addition to his activities as a portrait photographer. Also, when times were slow, Charles Wallace Jacob Johnson made extra money as a musician. Even when a photographer enjoyed the benefits of a permanent gallery, adaptability was still an asset because some were forced to trade photographs for deer horns, bear robes, wood, butter, or eggs to ensure survival in the growing towns. Many, too, became partners. This made it easier to attract clients because each photographer in the West competed with every other photographer in the West. When two photographers joined forces, more people trusted them to produce a quality product and purchased their pictures from them.26 Though the photograph proved itself to be quite an asset in the West, the public reaction, because of the uniqueness of the frontier, was unique to the feelings of the rest of the nation.
Related to the experience in the West, the Civil War was the turning point for American photography. It introduced the realistic treatment of disturbing subject matter of significant import. Very literally, the Civil War introduced the discipline of photojournalism, at least in the United States, and regulated the meaning of the images by combining them with words. When the war broke out in 1861, photography was only two decades old. Its chemistry was still unpredictable, which frustrated the photographers in the field. However, the experience trained a force of photographers to work in the field under the most dramatic and difficult of circumstances, a skill that proved invaluable to the western explorations of the late 1860s and 1870s. The outbreak of the war created an immediate and tremendous demand for photographs, not only for personal portraits for the newly enlisted soldiers and their families, but also for the likenesses of the political and military leaders of both sides. Fortunately for the photographers, because of the new wet-collodian process, photographic technology could meet the challenge. Tintypes also gained popularity in the war because they were light and virtually indestructible. Matthew Brady’s studios were in an excellent position to supply the public’s demands. He was the first American photographer to realize the unique opportunity that the Civil War provided to develop and exploit a demand for pictures of the war itself. O’Sullivan was probably the greatest photographer that the war produced, and he was able to create an enormous body of images that detail almost every aspect of the war: the battlefields, the wounded, the dead, artillery units, fortifications, railheads, war camps-virtually everything but battle itself. The major impact of the photograph was that the statistics of lost American lives became more comprehensible, and they were reduced to simple and compelling human terms. Especially important was the coverage of the Battle of Antietam that showed the “hushed, reverent groups standing around these weird bodies of carnage, bending down to look into the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men’s eyes.”27 Except for one group, all of the dead were Confederate soldiers-not merely numbers, but faces that used to smile. Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke of these specific photographs by stating:
“It was so nearly like visiting a battlefield to look over these views, that all of the emotions excited by the actual sight of the stained and storid scene, strewed with rags and wrecks, came back to us, and we buried them in the recesses of our cabinet as we would have buried the mutilated remains of the dead they too vividly represented…. The end to be attained justifies the means, we are willing to believe; but the sight of these pictures is a commentary on civilization such as a savage might well triumph to show its missionaries.”28
Thusly, the photographs became more substantial in content. Even a glance at the photograph shows a great deal of poetic license: the bodies were ghastly to behold, swollen and blackened from their decomposition, with grotesque, almost inhuman figures. Because of the advances in photography of the time, the nation was able to understand the destruction of the Civil War. 29
In explaining the specific impacts of different types of photography in different regions and situations throughout American history, this essay intends to present the true national craze that became known as the daguerreotype. As the United States grew, so did the daguerreotype and the number of those who practiced its trade. With its maturation, the daguerreotype became more popular and more practical, and transformed from a formal affair of few people to the photograph of the masses. Truly the photograph proved to be a national phenomenon. Excitement grew with the documentation of newly established western lands, and especially with graphic images of the American Civil War. The impact of the photograph is permanently etched in American history and provides a principle means of unlocking the antebellum past.
1. Ed Holm, “Photography:Mirror of the Past: 150 Years of Photography in America,”American History Illustrated, 24(5), in AMERICA HISTORY AND LIFE [database on-line], UGA library, SUBSCRIPTION file; accessed April 7, 1999.