A Mirror with a Memory
A palace for the sun
Today in 1839, Samuel F. B. Morse and Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre met in Daguerre’s studio, in Paris, France.
Morse, a celebrated portrait painter, wrote to his brother: “[The Daguerreotype] is one of the most beautiful discoveries of the age…. they resemble aquatint engravings, for they are in simple chiaro-oscuro and not in colors. But the exquisite minuteness of the delineation cannot be conceived. No painting or engraving ever approached it. … The impressions of interior views are Rembrandt perfected.”
Jeff Rosenheim, “‘A Palace for the Sun’: Early Photography in New York City,” in Art and the Empire City, 2000:
Morse in turn invited Daguerre to a demonstration of the electric telegraph, and on the very day that they met this second time, Daguerre’s Diorama–and with it his notes and early daguerreotypes–burned to the ground. This tragic coincidence forever linked the fate of these two figures and ingratiated Daguerre to Morse…
No sooner had [Morse] read [in September 1839] the details of the [daguerreotype] process than he built two portrait studios–glassed in-boxes with glass roofs–one atop his residence at the [University of the City of New York] on Washington Square, and one on the roof of his brothers’ new building… Morse dubbed the latter ‘a palace for the sun.’
Working in this light-filled studio with John Draper, a fellow professor at the university, Morse soon succeeded in shortening the exposure times by polishing the silvered plates to a higher degree than previously attained and adding bromine, an accelerator, to the chemistry. By late 1839 or early 1840 they had succeeded in making portraits.
Despite all the potential scientific uses for the daguerreotype–Morse had suggested that the discovery would ‘open a new field of research in the depths of microscopic Nature’–the most enduring legacy of the new medium was its role as a preserver of likenesses of men and women, not details of nature.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 1859:
The Daguerreotype… has fixed the most fleeting of our illusions, that which the apostle and the philosopher and the poet have alike used as the type of instability and unreality. The photograph has completed the triumph, by making a sheet of paper reflect images like a mirror and hold them as a picture… [it is the] invention of the mirror with a memory…
…before another generation has passed away, it will be recognized that a new epoch in the history of human progress dates from the time when He who
never but in uncreated light
Dwelt from eternity—
took a pencil of fire from the hand of the ‘angel standing in the sun,’ and placed it in the hands of a mortal.
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