It is January 7, 1839. A proud Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, one-time partner of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, discoverer of the earliest photographic process, is explaining his own image-making process, the daguerreotype, to the French Academy of Sciences.
A French newspaper rhapsodizes: “What fineness in the strokes! What knowledge of chiaroscuro! What exquisite finish! How admirable are the fore shortenings given: this is nature itself!” It was the crowning moment to years of feverish activity that, according to legend, culminated in a marvelous accident.
One day Daguerre opened a trunk into which he had stashed and then forgotten exposed plates that he had tried to develop, without success, in iodine. To his astonishment he found perfectly detailed positive images. Daguerre determined that mercury vapors from a broken thermometer developed the plates. It was thus that Daguerre perfected the process whose existence he made public to scientific and popular acclaim: a unique, positive image on an iodized, silver-coated copper plate developed in mercury vapor. The visual world would never be the same.
In commemorating the 150th anniversary of this discovery, the Musée Carnavalet has created an impressive exhibit, Paris et le Daguerréotype. Gathered from collections around the world are more than 160 19th-century images whose beauty and elaborate detail no other photographic technique has approached, let alone surpassed.
But there’s more: three dozen modern daguerreotypes spice the exhibit. “I use Daguerre’s process to express a personal vision,” says Irving Pobboravsky in a video accompanying the exhibit. The Musée Carnavalet commis¬sioned Pobboravsky, a researcher at the Institute of Technical & Graphic Arts in Rochester N.Y. and a daguerreotypist for 20 years, his assistant Grant Romer, a restorer at Rochester’s George Eastman House, and the Frenchman Patrick Bailly-Maitre-Grand to make daguerreotypes of modern Paris. In the same video Romer adds: “Photography really begins in Paris – what better city to revisit with the original techniques? It’s a modern activity.” For Bailly-Maitre-Grand, this revisitation takes the form of a dialogue – witness his monumental 360º panoramic view of the Pont des Arts.
Paris and the daguerreotype: the old and the new. In cool, darkened corridors that create a delicious intimacy the visitor can peer into glass-covered niches where precisely rendered images of 19th and 20th-century Paris sit like jewels. Familiar monuments are there: the Louvre, the Seine and its bridges, the Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon, Notre Dame. The first daguerreotypists photographed actualities: battalions in review, the return of the troops from Italy, the uprising of 1848. There are some moments of pure poetry: the wrenching image of a young insurgent’s slashed corpse, and the crowds flowing over the Pont de la Concorde like a river of fog. And at the exhibit’s end, in this age of the disposable camera, one will find the Eiffel Tower, Beaubourg, La Géode, La Défense, and contemporary portraits – images combining daguerreotypically sharp detail and dream-like atmosphere with a decidely modern sensibility.
Stereoscopic views highlight the Palais de l’Industrie and the Bal Mabille. Frederich von Marten’s panoramas tempt visitors to stroll through the silver¬ized Paris streets. Among the portraits are images of Napoleon III, Baron Haussman, and Daguerre himself, captured by the process he would have been proud to learn is being used to immortalize Paris at the end of the millenium.
Paris et le Daguerréotype, Musée Carnavalet, 23, rue de Sévigné, 4e.