The Eerie Exactness of the Daguerreotype

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently exhibiting The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreo 1839-1855. New York Times ran an review of this show on their Friday (Sep. 26, 2003) paper: The Eerie Exactness of the Daguerreotype, by Michael Kimmelman.

In the first room is a view across the Seine by Marie-Charles-Isidore Choiselat, …daguerreotype is about 6 by 7 inches, a compact panorama.

It shows the Pavillon de Flore and the Tuileries on a September afternoon in 1849. You see the piers of the Pont Royal streaked by shadows under gathering clouds. A halo surrounds the buildings where the photographer blocked out part of the picture to prevent the sky from being overexposed.

So we get both sharp detail in the architecture and passing weather, the halo making the scene look not just dramatic but slightly unreal. The wind must have been brisk that day because the leaves on the trees in the garden are a little blurry, a result of the longer exposure time Choiselat allowed in that part of the picture. But if you take your magnifying glass and look very closely at the bridge, you can just make out the nearly invisible speck of a policeman standing at attention.

The daguerreotype is so minutely detailed that when the magnification is strong enough, you can even count the buttons on the starched front of the policeman’s uniform (as the curator, Malcolm Daniel, confirmed through a microscope).

Here is the picture described above. Of course, to count the buttons on the police’s shirt, or to even see where the policeman is, you have to go to the Met with your magnifying glass. 🙂

Another quote from the New York Times review:

But you might also say that in an age overrun by visual images, photographers today like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth make spectacular color prints with digital means to recover something of the shock and amazement daguerreotypes must have provoked when people first saw them.

But the best early daguerreotypes, like Choiselat’s view across the Seine, remain weirdly unlike any other photographs, with their own mysterious, ethereal space. From Daguerre’s invention photography got the seeds of its talismanic aura: most people wouldn’t casually rip up photographs of their loved ones because it is still commonplace to believe, if only unconsciously, that photographs somehow contain tidbits of the souls of their subjects.

That is completely irrational and superstitious, of course. But you can see where it comes from when you look at daguerreotypes. They are perfectly true to life and somehow not of this world.