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. 

"Boulevard du Temple" taken in 1838 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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:

"No. 46 to No. 52, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania" 1843. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
"View of Niagara Falls, reversed view" between 1853 and 1860. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
"General Post Office from the corner of 7th Street and E Street, NW, Washington, D.C." 1846. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
"Monument commemorating the Battle of North Point, Calvert Street and Fayette Street, Baltimore, Maryland" 1846. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
"View from a Daguerrotype in the collection of the Maine Historical Society - Portland Merchants' Exchange, North side of Middle Street, between Exchange & Market Streets, Portland, Cumberland County, ME" 1846. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
"Ruins of the Merchants' Exchange. The building was destroyed by fire on the night of January 8, 1854." Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Six daguerreotypes form a wide view of San Francisco, 1853. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Perspective

    Untangling the Housing Shortage and Gentrification

    Untangling these related but different problems is important, because the tactics for solving one won’t work for the other.

  2. A cyclist rides on the bike lane in the Mid Market neighborhood during Bike to Work Day in San Francisco,
    Perspective

    Why We Need to Dream Bigger Than Bike Lanes

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  3. a photo of police and residents of Stockton, CA, in a trust-building workshop
    Equity

    A Police Department’s Difficult Assignment: Atonement

    In Stockton, California, city and law enforcement leaders are attempting to build trust between police and communities of color. Why is this so hard to do?

  4. a photo of the Maryland Renaissance Festival
    Life

    The Utopian Vision That Explains Renaissance Fairs

    What’s behind the enduring popularity of all these medieval-themed living-history festivals?

  5. Design

    The New MoMA Is Bigger, More Diverse, and More Open to the City

    The renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art looks to connect the museum to New York City while telling a fuller story about modernism.

×