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[Detail] United States Capitol [ca 1846]

The daguerreotype marked a milestone in photographic history as portraits became popular among politicians, celebrities, and the growing middle class. America's First Look into the Camera contains hundreds of portraits of both famous and anonymous men and offers insight into the people and policies of the nineteenth-century United States including politicians, the colonization of Liberia, effects of the Industrial Revolution, and reactions to high mortality rates.

America's First Exposure to Photography: The Daguerreotype Medium

Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in 1839. Within a few years, daguerreotype studios appeared in United States cities and the popularity of the medium grew through The 1850s. A brief history of the daguerreotype medium, its camera, and its image processing are available in the collection's,"The Daguerreotype Medium." The collection's Glossary provides a list of relevant terms.

Daguerreotypes were popularly and primarily used for portraits. Unlike most photographs today, in which images are printed from transparent negatives onto paper, the daguerreotype was a polished copper plate upon which an image was directly exposed. No negative used in the process and so each daguerreotype was a unique, one-of-a-kind object. With its brilliant, mirror-like surface and its ornate case, small enough to hold in the hand or carry in the pocket, the daguerreotype was suited to a vivid and intimate representation of a loved one.

Despite its value as a means of memorializing friends and family, photography did not have an immediate market. In fact, it was photography's almost magical ability to reproduce life that elicited fear and suspicion from many people. In an effort to assuage anxieties about the medium and to gain public credibility, photographers sought to take and to display portraits of America's elite. In an age when phrenologists offered to read a person's character based on their physical characteristics, portraits of society's leaders were thought to have an edifying and moralizing influence on the viewer. Portraits of esteemed personages such as Lyman Beecher, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Dolley Madison, and Abraham Lincoln drew the public to the photographers' studios and provided the genesis for a cult of celebrity that would grow with the evolution of photography.

  • Why do you think that portraiture was the most popular use of the daguerreotype? How might precedents in painting and drawing, the business needs of the studios, and the constraints of the medium have contributed to this popularity?
  • Why do you think that more men were photographed than women?
  • Why would portraits of prominent Americans encourage the public to sit for their own portraits?
  • Why would the display of these portraits lend the photographer credibility?
  • Why might early photographers have had a difficult time being taken seriously as professionals? Who would their competitors have been?
  • How might an early photographer have convinced an esteemed political or social leader to sit for his or her portrait?
  • How might an early photographer have distinguished himself from his competitors?

Some artists brought the daguerreotype outside of the portrait studio to capture images of buildings and places. In addition to hundreds of portraits, this collection also contains pictures of Niagara Falls, an American Indian camp, and a monument commemorating a battle from the War of 1812. Washington, D.C. locations featured in the collection include the General Post Office, and the Patent Office. Many daguerreotype images were later reproduced as engravings and drawings in newspapers and other periodicals.

  • How do you think that the realism of these images impacted the value of illustrations and written descriptions of these people and places?
  • How do you think that people might have responded to such images?
  • How do you think that the daguerreotype medium may have set a precedent for subsequent attempts at documentary photography?

For an understanding of how portrait photography evolved after the daguerreotype, browse American Memory collections, including William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz, America from the Great Depression to World War II, Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964, and By Popular Demand: "Votes for Women" Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920.

  • How did elements within a portrait (clothing, backgrounds, props, etc.) change over time?
  • How did expressions and mannerisms change over time?
  • How do the subjects affect the nature of the portrait?
  • Do you think that portraits are an accurate reflection of a person in a specific historical era?