How Recreating Early Daguerreotype Photographs Gave Us a Window to the Past

The oldest photographic images found in Australian library, museum, and gallery collections are the cased daguerreotypes.
These small, compact photographs seem very foreign to us. Mirror-like surfaces give their subjects a mysterious and otherworldly appearance. However, they are sharp images with amazing detail.

A black and white photograph in a velvet lined box

The daguerreotype was widely used in the 1840s and much of the 1850s, concurrently with the paper-based Calotype and later the collodion–on-glass Ambrotype.

Daguerreotype technology was used to take the first photographs of First Nations people. The first colonial photography exhibitions were held in Adelaide, Kaurna Country (1845) and Sydney, Gadigal Country (1848). They used daguerreotypes.

In colonial Australia, there were daguerreotype workshops in every capital. There were also many itinerant photographers who traveled to offer daguerreotype portraits at regional centers.

A vintage photograph.

Early Photography: The Experience

My research focuses on early photography. How was it to photograph? What was the impact of cumbersome technology on volatile chemistry on the types of photographs that were made? What stories from the colonial past are told in the daguerreotypes that we now have in our public collections?

Humanities researchers traditionally use diaries, letters and trade manuals, historical newspapers, solvency lists, and photographs to answer these questions.

These sources give us an archival record of the past, but they cannot fully evoke the experience that early photography was like. It is difficult to get a complete sense of the photochemistry and camera negotiations.

Last year, I was part of a team that created seven daguerreotype portraits to supplement and expand conventional research. It followed the 180-year-old process.

I wanted to grasp the essence of this first photographic experience.

A collection of vintage photos.

The project was also used by me and my collaborators to reflect on conversations about colonization, photography, collecting, and other historical circumstances. We are now better able to understand the past and the underpinning of historic collections.

Because of their personal and professional connections with early colonial Australian photography, I invited them to take part in the portrait-making process. Craig Tuffin, a historian, and James Tylor, a Kaurna First Nations artist, worked with me on one portrait. Tylor’s work combines modern and historic photographic technologies with photography.

Reactivating the Daguerreotype Process

A daguerreotype is made by using a thin sheet of copper with a thin silver layer. The surface of the silver is then polished and fumed in the dark using iodine or bromine. This makes it light-sensitive.

The photographer will have approximately an hour to sensitize the plate before it begins to degrade. The plate is placed into a darkened carrier and ready to be inserted in the back of a large-format box camera.

In historic photographs, the sitters often look somber or stern. This is less due to a general dissatisfaction with being photographed, but more because of the concentration required to not move during the photo and blur the image.

Exposure of a daguerreotype takes a long time. Portraits require that the subject remain still for at least 20 seconds depending on the light conditions.

A woman poses in front of an old camera

To reduce unconsciously occurring movement in the upper body during inhaling or exhaling, we asked our contemporary sitters for a hold on their breath for as long as they can.

Two people creating a daguerreotype photo.

Mercury vapor is used to develop the daguerreotype and stop its sensitivity from light. To protect and enhance the delicate image, the plate is heated and then bathed with a gold-chloride solution. In portraiture cases, the copper photographic plate can be sandwiched behind a piece glass and inserted into a leather bag.

Learn from the details

A historical process involves the excavation of knowledge that was known to early photographers. This knowledge has seldom survived in the archives.

It is rare that mistakes and imperfections are preserved. Plates that had been exposed to excessive heat were repolished in the middle of the 19th century. Plates containing dust or debris that had a negative effect on chemical preparations were also repolished and thrown away.

It’s sharp, focused images that have been taken with patrons and made it into our public collections.

A daguerreotype of a contemporary woman

This process was a learning experience for me. I had to consider the possibility of chemical failures as well as the cost of materials in order to create a business model that would work for early photographers.

These investments and expenditures underpin an itinerancy among early Australian photographers, whose survival depended on the steady flow of new customers.

The historic daguerreotype sitters brought important objects to the studio, including books, letters from loved one, cloaks and shields, heirlooms and other daguerreotypes.

This project’s sitters brought objects with them to tell their biographies. They were descendants of subjects in historical daguerreotypes, artists and curators who interpret and respond to Australian photography; and people whose migrations mirrored or diverged from the migratory “highways” of the mid-19th Century.

Stories from the Buried

As a historian of photography, it was my experience that the success of the final image depends on the composure of the sitter and the technical skills of the daguerreotype photographer.

Daguerreotype photography wasn’t a prescriptive or passive exercise on the part the sitter. It was dependent on a two-way conversation.

A modern daguerreotype photograph of a family

The colonial environment in which historical daguerreotypes were made had an impact on their custodianship and use. This was all indicative of the exploitative and destructive relationships that colonization created.

However, the experience of photographing in the studio was far more exciting.

This series is a dialogue with the past. This series is an attempt to show and emphasize the nature and history of early photography, where images were created in collaboration. It also reflects on how those negotiations can get muddied and buried in our archives.