Catalogue essay for Elisa deCourcy’s daguerreotype exhibition Archive Apparitions at PhotoAccess, Canberra, until 21 May, 2022.
Why do it again?
Every student of photographic history has seen at least one daguerreotype, as a slide in a lecture or an illustration in a book, perhaps accompanied by one of those phrases such as ‘mirror with a memory’ or ‘catch the shadow ere the substance fade’ which so succinctly sum up the power of photography. So, what extra can a researcher learn when they set out to make a daguerreotype again, following the process all the way from posing the nervous sitter to setting the silvered plate into its case.
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
I was just a part of the team, but that gave me the opportunity for some ‘apparatus thinking’ — doing again as historical research. The further back we go in photographic history the narrower becomes our conception of what photography was. By the time we get to the daguerreotype, photography is represented by a set of often nameless, authorless, and placeless images — which many historians have made careers out of discussing the ‘meaning’ of without the faintest idea of how they were made.
But doing it again makes you understand how big the whole ‘apparatus’ of photography was, even then. You realise that to make a go as a daguerreotypist you needed to know about the weather that day, and where the sun would be when. You needed to know about your studio, and what quantity of light could fill it. You needed to know your chemistry and how to adjust it with heat. You needed to know how to cajole or charm your sitters, from distracted children to formidable elders. You needed to know about fashion, and the actinic qualities of the new clothing dyes. You needed to know your camera and its lenses, inside and out. You needed to be punctilious and constantly obsessed by contamination, but also flexible and unflappable. You needed to be acutely aware of time and its second-by-second elapsation, both in the studio with the sitters and their fussing families, and in the darkroom with its fumes and solutions. Some of today’s photographers may still claim to ‘know’ these things, but they certainly do not know them in the same visceral and tactile way, or have as much at stake, as the daguerreotypist.
I gained even more respect for those daguerreotypists, particularly the ones in the colonies, living a precarious existence and caught in a perpetual battle between the need to control all the technical variables so the operation was reliable and repeatable, and the need to find and please new clients in new places by offering them new likenesses of themselves.
The drama of the studio was stark. The balance between the amount of light which could be brought to bear on the sitter, the bellows extension of the camera, and the time of exposure, was close. This was not the popular studio scenario of a prancing photographer blithely popping off flashes whenever they felt the instant hit them. This was the laborious, negotiated, collaborative — and yes, uncomfortable — construction of moments, not seconds, of exposure. And all the time the clock was ticking on the plate itself as its freshly fumed surface lost sensitivity.
In their newspaper advertisements the daguerreotypists I now admire so much more often compared themselves to artists, but it becomes clear when you do it again that this was not the whole story, they were also engineers, entrepreneurs, raconteurs, hustlers, hucksters, showmen, thaumaturges, and perhaps also proto-psychiatrists.
Until you do it you can’t realise just how mind bogglingly arcane the process is. That old ‘developing image swimming under red safelight’ trope that got me into photography has nothing on the perpetual buffing and heating and fuming and checking of the mercury daguerreotype darkroom. It is only when you have spent days doing it that you properly realize the extraordinary, almost cosmological, optical imagination of Daguerre, where nano particles of silver-mercury amalgam form an image only when they interfere with whatever happens to be reflected by a mirror held in the hand of a viewer. The particles are much smaller than any clump of film grain or pixel on your phone. Wha? Whether it is positive or negative depends on what is outside the encased image. Whaa?? The image is not visible ‘on’ the plate, but only in relation to what the plate also reflects from the room in which it is being held. Whaaa??? You are amazed that Daguerre’s leap into this silvered abyss took over the whole world for several decades in the mid nineteenth century.
I also learnt that even talking about daguerreotypists with their exceptional personalities and extraordinary knowledge isn’t sufficient to cover the whole process. There certainly needed to be teams to run the business, perhaps women front of house and boys in the darkroom. But the apparatus also extended to the sitter with their expectations and their imaginings of who the eventual receiver of their encased likeness might be. As soon as the sitter entered the studio there were international networks of extension erupting like one of those old telecom ads with glowing lines arcing between cities around a globe. Doing it all over again means that new networks now arc not only through space, but time as well.