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  The research archive of Gary W. Ewer regarding the history of the daguerreotype

Today's post is admittedly a post-dated item: from January 30. I am posted it today, however, as it represent the first of a series by W. H. Sherman, "The Rise and Fall of the Daguerreotype." This little-known series represents an important text in the literature of the daguerreotype. There are eight installments which, after today's post, will be posted on the day of their publication. The next installment will be March 13. The last of the series is December 18. Enjoy! (Special thanks to Irving Pobboravsky for making me aware of this important text.) --------------------- From The Photographic Times (New York; January 30, 1891; pp.52-3) THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DAGUERREOTYPE. (AS SEEN BY A COUNTRY "OPERATOR.") THE first daguerreotypists met with many difficulties and discouragements. The inferior quality of the lenses which they were compelled for want of better to use, has already been alluded to. This was but one item of their trouble. Failures occurred from numberless causes which, to the inexperienced, and all then were included in that term, were inexplicable. Little things which the unpracticed eye was unable to detect often produced the greatest mischief. Neither were causes of trouble confined to visible things. It would be difficult for photographers of the present day to realize how difficult it was, way back in the early forties--say any time previous to '45 or '46--to successfully manage, at all times, those little 3 1/4 x 2 5/6 silver plates (the size mostly used then) so as to obtain satisfactory results. Failures often occurred from over or under exposure, and the limit beyond which this might be carried, or short of which it might fall, and the picture be saved, was very narrow. But most failures and faults were due to some defect in the preparation of the plates previous to exposure. What were the sources of these defects was a continual puzzle. One trouble which every beginner soon became familiar with was called the "blues." When that made its appearance white shirt fronts and white high lights were out of the question, and beautiful as is the color of the sky on a pleasant day, it was never popular when it usurped the place of white in a daguerreotype. They were contagious, were the blues, and the human victim of the malady was bluer than the plates. To show the importance of a very small things, the second coating with iodine may be mentioned. After Fizeau discovered the superiority of bromine as an accelerator(1) it was used at first only after the iodine. But one day an operator, after having coated his plate as usual, in a moment of forgetfulness, began over again by putting it the second time over the iodine, when on withdrawing it and noticing the very unusual color, he remembered his mistake and supposed the plate was spoiled for that time, but concluded to try it, and was surprised by obtaining a better image than ever. He had discovered an important improvement, which was at once universally adopted wherever known. It was gradually learned that dampness in the air, the emanations given off by fresh paint and spirits of turpentine, even musk and other strong perfumes were deleterious in their effects upon the sensitive plate. From numerous and various causes the buffs became contaminated; then the plates would be utterly demoralized, and operations would have to suspended, perhaps for days, possibly for weeks, before the trouble would be remedied; the unfortunate proprietor, in the meantime, suspecting everything but the right one as the source of the difficulty. If all the light which science and experience have shed upon the art of photography in fifty years has not yet disclosed all the little vexatious pitfalls and stumbling-blocks to be met with by those who are not quite beginners, it is probably not to be wondered at if those rustic pioneers on the frontiers of an unexplored art did sometimes get "rattled." The first daguerreotypists, outside of the cities, were generally those who had had no previous training suited to fit them for the calling. One had been brought up on a farm, and fancied he would find in it easier work and better pay than following a plow or swinging a scythe. Another had learned a trade which he thought was less promising than the new art, which he could learn in a few weeks. A doctor or schoolmaster, who had leisure time at his disposal, saw, or believed he saw, a profitable and pleasant way of employing it. Many were called, but few chosen. There was then no literature of the art. No handbook had been printed; no journals were published. Those who pretended to initiate the candidate into the mysteries were, with but few exceptions, in need of being themselves taught in the first principles of the knowledge which they professed to impart. The consequence was that before long hardly a country village could be found in the parts which I visited that had not its resident daguerreotypist already on the retired list, but not, I grieve to say, on half pay. Rather because he had not been able to make it half pay. Sometimes, one who had not disposed of his outfit would dabble at odd times with the illusory pastime to which distance had once lent enchantment, in the vague hope of finding smoother paths and ways of pleasantness, from which he had evidently wandered through the inadvertency of incompetent guides. One in relating his experience to me admitted his suspicion that his kemeery was no better that it ought to be; that it was slow, didn't cut very sharp, and when the hands came into the picture, they looked too large. But he had been told that it could be made to work like one of the very best by putting a diagram in it. (Central stops were not then in general use.) He also related how he had been humbugged by a fellow who sold him a receipt for making his own chloride of gold. He procured a piece of coin and the necessary acids as prescribed by his costly formula, putting all together into a tin dish which he had purchased new to make sure of its being clean. As his stewpan boiled and frothed and smoked the choking fumes caused him to retire to a respectful distance and await developments. When at length the effervescence and smoke subsided he proceeded to take account of the net assets accrued from this experiment in alchemy, and found, so he said, "nothing but a dirty black mess of stuff that biled over onto the floor and the gold gone to the d----," It was before one of these primitive machines that an old lady sat one day until she wept. Then the magician who was conducting the necromancy withdrew, with his plate-holder and tablet, behind the curtain where the pot of fuming hydrargyrum was hid from eyes profane. In due time issuing thence empty handed, he solemnly addressed his waiting patroness as follows: "Madam, I regret to say that the former sitting was too prolonged. May I ----" She interrupted him by gleefully exclaiming, "There, I knew it, I knew it. A little while before you put that cover on there, I thought I felt it draw!" So well pleased was she with this verification of her inner promptings that she was willing to sit again and give him notice when to stop. The above report from the dark closet was in effect the conventional formula for the first failure. It was oftener that the unfortunate operator did not know the cause of the failure, but in the hope that the next trial might not turn out still worse, he wished to keep up the spirits of his sitter with the prospect of a less tedious ordeal, and so it was thought expedient to report that the one already passed through was too long. Besides it was strictly true that it had been too long--for the sitter. But for the knights of the camera who valiantly held on their way a better time was coming. The new lens had come and was proving a weapon of strength to those who provided themselves with it. Little by little it was learned how to shun failure and achieve success. Already the names of several recognized leaders had become well known, among the foremost of whom as I recall them were Root and Langenheim, of Philadelphia; Gurney and Brady, of New York; Whipple and Black, of Boston. This was forty-four years ago. W. H. Sherman. (To be continued.) ------------------------------------------------------------------ (1) Sherman corrects this error crediting Fizeau with the discovery of bromine acceleration in the second part of the series. (First of eight serialized parts from 30 January, 1891 to 18 December, 1891. Next installment appears 13 March 1891) (Transcriber's note: Both spacing between paragraphs, and double spaces between sentences are per the original presentation. Original errors of grammar/spelling maintained.) ------------------------------------------------------------- 03-09-97

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