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A revolution etched in silver

Published September 28, 2003

NEW YORK - The first of the visuals emerged in early 1839, precise images on silver-plated metal and unlike anything that had been seen before.

Some months later, inventor Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre showed the world the process for creating those daguerreotypes, and a global craze was born.

"It's as much a turning point in civilization and the transmission of knowledge and culture as was the invention of movable type or the computer," said Malcolm Daniel, curator of "The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855."

The exhibit, which includes portraits of authors Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas and artist Eugene Delacroix, runs through Jan. 4 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was organized by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, where it was originally shown this past summer, but the show at the Met has made some content changes.

Daguerre was a painter and printmaker who had spent years working with partner Nicephore Niepce on a process that would allow images seen through a lens to be captured permanently.

Niepce died in 1833, but Daguerre continued the work and started showing examples to select groups of artists and scientists in 1838. He brought them to a wider audience in January 1839, and by August of that year, after selling the French government rights to the process in return for a lifetime pension, explained the whole process.

That consisted of taking copper sheets plated with silver, treating them with chemicals, putting them into cameras and making the exposures, and then chemically treating the result to develop the image. What came out was a one-of-a-kind, extremely detailed photograph.

"Everybody was just chomping at the bit" to try it, Daniel said, and within months, it had spread all over the world. People used it to take pictures of everything - landscapes, subjects under microscopes and, of course, themselves. Daniel said most of the daguerreotypes produced during this time were portraits.

"Once it became practical, that's what everybody wanted," he said. "It made portraiture accessible to whole classes of people who never would have dreamed of having their portraits painted (because of the cost)."

It also was used to capture images from all over the world. Artists began using it to take pictures of the nude images they used for their paintings, and others for selling erotica.

Daguerreotypes began falling out of popularity in France in the mid 1850s, as photography on paper came to the forefront. Paper photography, while not as detailed, had the advantage of being reproduced multiple times, as opposed to once for daguerreotypes, and could be stored in albums.

The Met exhibit consists of about 175 items, mostly daguerreotypes. It starts off by explaining the process and showing examples, before moving into sections on images of Paris, portraits, images from global travels and the use of daguerreotypes in art and science.

The show will not travel.

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