Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, inventor of the first practical process of photography, was born near Paris, France, on November 18, 1789. A successful commercial artist and a skilled theatrical designer, Daguerre began experimenting with the effects of light upon translucent paintings in the 1820s. In 1829, he formed a partnership with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) to improve the process that Niépce had developed to take the first permanent photograph in 1826-27.
After several years of experimentation, Daguerre developed a more convenient and effective method of photography, naming it after himself—the daguerreotype. In 1839, he formally announced the process and he and Niépce’s son sold the rights for the daguerreotype to the French government. They published a booklet describing the process.
The daguerreotype gained popularity quickly; by 1850, there were over seventy daguerreotype studios in New York City alone. The Library’s Daguerreotype Collection consists of more than 700 carefully preserved daguerreotypes. Items of particular interest include a series of portraits of African Americans who emigrated to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, a series of Occupational Photographs, a collection of Architectural Scenes and Outdoor Views, and the architectural daguerreotypes of John Plumbe. The majority of the daguerreotypes in the collection are portraits including the Library’s earliest photograph of Abraham Lincoln.
- America’s First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1862 also includes the largest collection in existence of daguerreotypes from the studio of Mathew Brady. Brady is most famous for his photographs of the Civil War, many of which are featured in Selected Civil War Photographs.
- The Special Presentation Mirror Images: Daguerreotypes at the Library of Congress provides an introduction to the Library’s daguerreotype collection. See the Timeline of the Daguerreian Era to learn more about the period.
- Descriptions of the process developed by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and the equipment used by daguerreotype photographers are included in The Daguerreotype Medium; to find them, scroll down to the appropriate headings.
- Search on daguerreotype in The Nineteenth Century in Print External. The search yields articles and images. Read, for example, “New-York Daguerreotyped External,” an article published in Putnam’s Monthly in April 1853.
- In the late 1850s, with the development of new photographic methods, use of the daguerreotype waned. Search the following collections on the years between 1826 and 1859 to learn about other Daguerreian era forms of art and entertainment.
- Learn more about daguerreotypes from the Prints & Photographs Reading Room.
- Search Today in History on photographer to find features on Dorothea Lange, Mathew Brady, Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, and Samuel Herman Gottscho and William Schleisner.
- For even more daguerreotypes, see two online exhibitions:
- Secrets of the Dark Chamber: The Art of the American Daguerreotype External from the National Museum of American Art
- Daguerreotypes at Harvard External from the extensive photograph collections of Harvard University and Radcliffe.