The early days of photography

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

During the first few decades of the 19th Century, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833) began experimenting with photography. Hailing from a wealthy family, Niepce was the son of a counselor to King Louis XVI, and he had the leisure time and financial means to explore his desire for creating lasting images.

In 1825, Niepce captured his first image (Niepce called it a heliograph) of a barn. This early technology, however required an eight-hour exposure, and the image itself only lasted one day.

During the same time that Niepce was experimenting with his photography, Louis Daguerre (1787–1851) was already famous as a painter and set designer for the opera houses of Paris. Daguerre was intrigued with playing with light and shadows to create optical illusions that would be used on the stage in the theater.

Daguerre had learned about Niepce’s work with photography, and the two men met in Paris in 1828. By 1829, the two formed a partnership. Together, the men were able to generate images exposed by the sun on plates of bituminous coal. While the concept was in place, the two inventors struggled with the basic idea of the photographic process: capturing an image using a light-sensitive surface but, once created, having that image resist fading in the light.

Unfortunately, Niepce died in 1833, not living to see his life’s work be perfected. Daguerre continued on, and in 1835, he successfully created a lasting image, naming it after himself, calling it a “daguerreotype.”

Daguerre perfected the method by using silver-plated copper and glass plates that had been treated with iodine to make them sensitive to light exposure. These plates would be exposed in a camera, and then mercury vapors would be used to develop the image. This process would take 20-30 minutes. The plate would then be rinsed in a salt water solution to remove the iodine and prevent further development when exposed to light.

However, because the image was etched onto the silver, the finished product had a mirror-like quality for a time until the silver would become heavily tarnished, making the images difficult to see.

Despite their limitations, daguerreotypes were a new innovation that presented clear and realistic images. Unlike paintings, sketches, and drawings, daguerreotypes captured a true likeness of an individual or a landscape. It is not surprising that having one’s image captured in the form of a daguerreotype became quite popular not only in Europe, but across America as well.

Daguerreotype of an unknown young lady (circa 1855) in the collection of the Monroe County Historical Association.
Many Monroe County citizens lined up to have a remembrance of themselves taken. Unlike today when we experience being photographed regularly, folks living in the mid-19th century would dress in their best attire for portraits, knowing that this would perhaps be the one and only likeness taken of them in their lifetime.

While many of the local photographers are known, there are many more who are unknown. Many individuals dabbled in picture-taking for a short period of time.

For example, it is recorded that, in 1850, Monroe County resident Dr. Jackson Lantz at the age of 19 “learned the art of daguerreotyping” and that he “began his business career by the purchase of a complete outfit for portrait making.”

Lantz continued in this line of work for only two years until he became a dentist, leaving daguerreotyping behind. There must be many other undocumented Monroe County men and women who experimented with or even had short-lived businesses in daguerreotyping.

Daguerreotypes were popular from about the 1840s through the 1860s. Improvements in images continued; daguerreotypes were followed by ambrotypes. Ambrotypes were very similar to daguerreotypes, but they lacked the mirrored look. They too were mounted on glass, but when they were held up to the light, they were see-through. Because of the lack of silver, ambrotypes did not tarnish, but the black paint that was applied to the back side of the plate often dried out and chipped away.

Both daguerreotypes and ambrotypes were placed in small cases that hinged and clasped shut. The cases are known as “Union Cases” and were made by mixing shellac and wood fibers that were pressed into a mold. The result is a plastic-looking hard case that protects the images from breakage.

Ambrotypes were popular for 10 years from 1855 through 1865, when the tintype was developed. The tintype was mounted on a piece of tin which proved to be much more durable than the glass daguerreotypes or ambrotypes and needed no Union Case. Tin types were inexpensive and became quite popular with the public.

Living in a modern society, we know there are cameras nearly everywhere: on light posts that line city sidewalks; on dashboards of cars; at highway toll booths; at nearly every checkout counter, and on every computer. Cameras are available on almost every cell phone, and we all have the ability to snap a picture any time we’d like. It is easy to forget how far photography has come over the course of 175 years, since the daguerreotype was first invented.