Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
How we learned to use Polariod's precursor to capture urban life.
The Daguerreotype process, invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839, was the Polaroid of its time, creating one unique image that could only be duplicated by taking a photograph of the original.
The debut of the first practicable photographic process was a big deal. Daguerre donated it to the French government in exchange for lifetime pensions for himself and the son of his deceased invention partner (who had created the first permanent camera photograph in 1826), Nicéphore Niépce. The French Government then presented the invention as a gift to the world (published instructions included) on August 19, 1839.
As groundbreaking as the Daguerrotype was for photography, making one was expensive, time consuming, and dangerous. The process included a long string of steps, materials, and the use of mercury fumes before having a final product.
Portraits were the most common daguerrotype print, especially in its earliest days. It was nearly impossible to capture street life thanks to exposures lasting 10 minutes or more, which would render nearly any moving pedestrian or horse carriage invisible.
That's obvious in the image above, taken by Daguerre himself one year before taking his invention public. Depicting life on Boulevard du Temple, a busy street in Paris, the only two people we see are a bootblack and his customer.
Within a few years though, exposure times had been reduced significantly thanks to additional chemicals and faster lenses. Daguerreotype photography quickly gained popularity in the United States, with an estimated three million daguerrotypes being produced annually by 1853.
Below, courtesy the Library of Congress, a look at some of America's cityscapes: