When the daguerreotype was invented in 1839, it was a revelation. The first photographic process to be made available to the public, daguerreotypes were shiny, reflective objects that delighted and astonished viewers by capturing the likenesses of friends and family with brilliant clarity. For the first time in history, portraits of loved ones could be recorded and shared or passed down to descendants. The impact of the daguerreotype and of photography on the lives of ordinary people was immense.
The science of capturing light on a photographic surface was co-developed in France by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851) and Joseph-Nicephore Niépce (1765–1833). Niépce died before practical success was achieved, and Daguerre went on to perfect the process. Highly polished silver-plated sheets of copper that were sensitized with iodine vapours and developed in mercury fumes, daguerreotypes created compelling, one-of-a-kind images with infinite detail.
A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada features examples of these special objects. While not rare, daguerreotypes are not often exhibited due to their susceptibility to light and environmental degradation. Drawn from the collection of Library and Archives Canada, the objects in this exhibition have undergone careful preservation and conservation treatment, and offer the viewer an extraordinary look at these unique photographs. Intimate, detailed and captivating, these objects—reflective by their very nature—are some of the earliest photographic glimpses of Canada in existence.
The exhibition features street scenes as well portraits of both well-known and unknown personalities. Most likely taken in Europe in the late 1840s, the portrait of Maungwudaus, a member of the Anishnaabe Nation of the New Credit Mississauga, is one of the earliest photographic portraits of an Aboriginal person in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Maungwudaus grew up near what is now Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. Educated by Methodist missionaries, he later worked in mission outreach and as a translator and writer before finding acclaim as a performer in a “Wild West” show that he along with friends and family members, organized and travelled through parts of the U.S. and Europe. The troupe was celebrated in England and in France where Maungwudaus was presented with several medals by King Louis Philippe I.
As one-of-a-kind objects designed to be stored in a closed case and looked at by one viewer at a time, daguerreotypes are intimate by nature. Some show the wear and tear expected of objects over a century old. Often, the names of the sitters or any other accompanying information has long since disappeared, making the exceptions even more special. One such example is the portrait of a group of merchants from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, dated 1855. This daguerreotype had a small manuscript tucked inside at the back of the plate, which is signed by one of the sitters and lists all the members of the group, as well as the location of the sitting and the name of the daguerreotypist, Wellington Chase. In this portrait, among others, we can see Loran Ellis Baker, seated front row, centre. Twenty-four years old at the time of this portrait, Baker was one of Yarmouth’s most prominent businessmen and civic leaders, and a member of the Legislative Council of Nova Scotia from 1878 to 1900.
Visit the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from September 4 to February 28, 2016.