Daguerreotypes: The Unicorn of Photography


Daguerreotypes: The Unicorn of Photography

We’re living in the time of “tidying up.” Throw out things that don’t bring you joy. Live minimalistically. Yada yada. It’s a valuable skill to be able to recognize when you have “too much stuff” (I’m looking at you, Tupperware mountain), but there is a danger to tossing items simply because it is on trend. Items that may feel like clutter now can become a treasured heirloom down the road.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at history. 

Daguerreotypes are the unicorn of photography. Many people think that they have one and are surprised when they find out their piece is something else. What makes daguerreotypes rare is not the fact that people didn’t have them. In fact, they were fashionable, and many people had their portraits taken. When new photographic technology was developed, people went after the “new thing,” and either threw out their daguerreotypes or didn’t treat them with the same care. As a result, the surviving daguerreotypes have become rare and valuable to collectors. 

For those of you fortunate enough to have one, or for those interested in photography trends, here’s a little history on daguerreotypes:

What Is a Daguerreotype?

daguerreotypeA daguerreotype is made from a copper plate covered with a layer of highly polished silver. The surface is then exposed to vapors given off by crystals of iodine that creates an even thinner layer of silver iodine on top of the metal. It is then exposed in the camera and then developed. This process was improved to speed up production, make the photo warmer in tone, and increase the sensitivity of the plates between 1839 and 1840. The improvements caused a major growth in the industry. 

Daguerreotypes are often confused with ambrotypes (a monochrome positive collodion negative on glass) because they tend to be displayed the same way. Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are often enclosed in small cases with hinged covers. An easy way to tell the difference is to look at the surface. The silver gives daguerreotypes a “mirrored” look; the surface of the photo has similar qualities to a mirror. Ambrotypes do not have that intense reflective quality.

Common Damage

Think about your jewelry and silverware. What happens when silver is exposed to the environment or are handled too much? That same tarnishing can happen to daguerreotypes. They are extremely sensitive to environmental elements and handling. Past conservation methods encouraged cleaning daguerreotypes to restore them. However, the cleaners caused irreversible damage that we can see today. In fact, the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY has a daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe that was cleaned in the 1960’s. It now has deterioration caused by residues left by the cleaning solution.  

People also cause damage by opening the housing containing the image and exposing them to the environment. These images are protected by glass and copper that created a seal around the photo. By breaking that seal, you’re welcoming all of the pollutants, moisture, light, etc. to wreak havoc on your daguerreotype. There are times where you will see a ring of tarnish around the copper edges working its way toward the center. Unfortunately, this is common and is caused by a loose seal. 

How to Display/Store Daguerreotypes

daguerreotypesFirst and foremost, these images were meant to be seen and loved. They are old and sensitive, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy them. Here are a few tips:

  • Do not try to clean it. Today’s conservation methods encourage stabilization and preservation over aggressive cleaning treatments. A trained professional can tighten the seal without damaging the piece and develop a treatment plan for any reversible damage (if possible).
  • If you want a copy, work with a pro. There are many types of photography that you can digitize and copy yourself, but a daguerreotype is not one of them. Due to their sensitivity and fragility, it is important to work with someone that is trained to handle these pieces.
  • Find the proper storage. A museum box is the perfect solution. These boxes are made with conservation materials that are tightly fit to keep bugs, pollutants, and more away from your photos. Store the box in a temperature stable environment. We like to add a pair of cotton gloves to the box as oils from your hands can cause additional damage to photographs.
  • Love it? Frame it. A client recently brought in a beautiful daguerreotype of a relative that she wanted to frame. We created a microenvironment that allowed the piece to be displayed in the proper environment (low light, correct relative humidity, etc). While we frame our pieces with conservation, UV protected glazing, it is important to keep the piece out of overly intense light while on display. 

Daguerreotypes are amazing piece of photographic history. Many pieces didn’t survive because people wanted to be trendy or take advantage of the shiny new technology. These people didn’t realize that there are family members today that would cherish them. While you’re cleaning out your closets, stop and think to yourself: “I don’t need it, but could it bring joy to someone else – even 100 years from now?”


Source: Lavédrine, Bertrand. Photographs of the Past: Process and Preservation. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2009. Print.