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 more than 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. In the late 1850s, with the development of new photographic methods, use of the daguerreotype waned.
- The Daguerreotypes collection 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 Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints.
- The essay 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 essay, The Daguerreotype Medium. Consult Daguerreotypes: A Selected Bibliography for more resources about daguerreotypes.
- Search on daguerreotype in the Chronicling America newspaper collection. The search yields articles and images. For example, read the essay, Curious Courtship or The Three Daguerreotypes, by Nathan Ames in the February 16, 1854 edition of the Indiana newspaper, The Plymouth Banner. Or read The Daguerreotype, in the February 28, 1899 edition of the Montana newspaper, The Philipsburg Mail.
- Learn more about the Library’s Photograph collections and related programs and services. Visit the home page of Prints & Photographs Reading Room and read Library of Congress Prints and Photographs: An Illustrated Guide.
- Visit the webpage for the non-profit Daguerreian SocietyExternal, whose members are interested in early photography of all types.
- 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 and Daguerreotypes at Harvard External from the extensive photograph collections of Harvard University and Radcliffe.