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

One last May item before the month is done. . . The following is excerpted from the article by Abraham Bogardus, "The Experiences of a Photographer." (Lippincott's Magazine, May 1891, pp. 574-82): - - - - - - - - - - - - - - THE EXPERIENCES OF A PHOTOGRAPHER. On the morning of October 17, 1846, I first solicited as a photographer the patronage of the public, and from that day until December 31, 1887, I continued to practise photography in all its successive stages. During my forty-one years' experience under the skylight I have made the daguerreotype on the silver plate, the ambrotype on glass, and the photograph on paper. I have made pictures of the grandfathers and grandmothers of the present generation, and, I must say, they were not so hard to please as are their grandchildren. The old fogies were satisfied to have the picture a likeness; the art of retouching and removing wrinkles had not been discovered. When I commenced business, the number of pictures made was very small: five or six sitters in a week was a fair average. In a few months, however, the demand for likenesses had so increased that I was compelled to employ two assistants, and we seldom had a moment's leisure while the sun was shining. In the year 1839, M. Daguerre published to the world his success in fixing the image of the camera obscura by the action of light and chemicals. Thereupon, mechanical genius, chemical knowledge, and scientific research combined to develop the capabilities of the invention. If we follow these developments we shall find the results truly astonishing; yet it is the belief of photographers that their art will achieve still greater results in the future. Daguerre's first success required an exposure of thirty minutes in the full sunshine; now, perfect impressions are made in a fraction of a second. This alone is a wonderful advance, even leaving out of consideration the great improvement in the quality of the production. THE OLD-TIME DAGUERREOTYPE. The daguerreotype was made on a plate having a pure silver surface. This plate was polished on a buff of soft leather covered with rouge, continuous rubbing rendering it very sensitive. It was then subjected to the vapor of iodine, in the dark room, until coated to a light yellow, when it was inserted in the holder, and, after exposure in the camera, returned to the dark room and placed over the fumes of hot mercury. This developed the image. The plate could now be exposed to the light for a short time, without damage. At this early date--1846--our experience in the photographic art was limited, and our knowledge of the ever-changing chemicals was very slight. Sometimes we succeeded in getting a good impression; often we did not, and could not tell the reason why; after several trials we would give it up, and request the sitter to come another day, when we would try to make the chemicals work better. It seemed mysterious, but the chemicals which worked well one day and gave the desired results could perhaps not be made to produce an impression the next. An operator in a daguerreotype gallery on Broadway came to me one day, bringing a dozen or more plates, which he had been exposing. On two of them a portion of the table-cover could be seen, but not even an outline of the sitter was discernible. The operator had not made any change in his chemicals as they had worked satisfactorily the preceding day. What was the matter? Was a question I could not answer. After many efforts to shorten the process, it was found that the vapor of bromine in connection with iodine acted as an accelerator, and the time required for the sitting was much shortened. After spending much time and money, the writer was successful in producing some fine impressions in ten and fifteen seconds. While this required great care on the part of the operator, it was a much-desired relief to the sitter. These early plate impressions would fade out after a prolonged exposure to the light; but after a time we learned to fix the image with chloride of gold, so that it would not fade. Such plates may become tarnished from the vapors to which they may be exposed; but they can be cleaned and restored to their original perfection. The writer can restore them, unless some "smart" person has endeavored to clean them by rubbing them out,--as has often been done. Many fine daguerreotypes now in my collection were made over forty years ago, and are just as good as on the day they were taken. An instance is well remembered, of a lady bringing an old case, said to contain a picture, but the plate was tarnished and covered with a film, so that the impression was not visible. In a few minutes the impression was restored and the picture was shown to the lady. She fainted on seeing it, as it was her husband's picture, and he had been dead for twenty years. She had not expected to see the picture restored. It was to her as if he had been brought back from the grave. While spending some days last summer in a village not far from New York, I called, by invitation, upon a widow residing in the vicinity. She brought out a box about two feet square, filled with what she called her treasures. There were some thirty or forty daguerreotypes, nearly all of my making,--pictures of her husband, father, mother, brothers, and sisters, all of whom were dead. She valued them above price. Keep the old pictures. They are interesting to show how you looked and how you dressed thirty or forty years ago. Many a man sixty years old forgets, until he sees his long-neglected daguerreotype, what a promising youth he was at twenty-one years of age, when he deposited his first vote. The change wrought by time is so great that it is almost impossible for him to believe that he is the person represented by the old picture. Occasionally people bring pictures made twenty years ago, to be copied for presentation to friends, as they are well aware that a picture from life taken now would show the marks of time, and they are not willing to admit that they are growing old. It was very difficult then for the public to pronounce the word "daguerreotype." With some it was "dau-ger-type;" others said "dag-ro- type;" and by some it was debased into "dag-type." (The remaining text not transcribed. With thanks to Jeremy Rowe for providing a copy of the article.) -------------------------------------------------------------- 05-31-97

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