Strings attached: The real story of the daguerreotype, a gift from France.

Strings Attached.

The gift of the french to the world was the Daguerreotype. While a flattering statement for the French, one must not forget that, like lunch, nothing comes free. It’s striking to think that such a popular commercially viable and patentable process such as the Daguerreotype would not find success first in the private sector before being released to the public. Why?

This writing will examine what factors went into this bold and seemingly obvious decision, by whom, and to what ends. What became of the Daguerreotype? What were the consequences of the patent release? Most importantly, why would one of the largest technical achievements in the history of modern times be simply given away? As we will find, the answer is not so simple that we can sequester it into the category as purely altruistic.

Louis Daguerre, Library of Congress.

Louis Daguerre, Library of Congress.

Daguerre, who by fate would develope the silver-on-mirror technique for fixing images in the same year as Talbot’s Calotype, announced his accomplishment in 1839. The Daguerreotype was not just seen as technically superior at the time, as the images were of higher clarity [1] and had less a propensity to fade as did the Calotype; but they also were substantially more popular in part due to the lack of aggressive patenting.

The technical superiority of the Daguerreotype over the Calotype should not be understated. In fact, a reviewer at the International Photography Exhibit of 1863 remarked that many images were “fading before the eyes of the nations assembled.” [2] Clarity in the Daguerreotype was more pronounced, no doubt a result of printing on glass rather than porous paper, as the Calotype did.

To make matters worse for the Calotype, it’s inventor William F. Talbot was notoriously known for having a poor business sense. Talbot’s publication, the Pencil of Nature, had dwindling sales before being abandoned - not finished - before the 7th edition was released. [3] Still, Despite all of these disadvantages the Calotype still had the important advantage of mass production; a quality that was not merely lacking but non existent in the Daguerreotype.

The Daguerreotype was embraced by nearly every corner of the world. Studios soon began popping up in America [4] and by the late 1850’s, Daguerreotypes represented the majority of all images produced photographic images. Over 30 million were made made in the United States alone. [5]

Daguerreotype, Father with his Son, Library of Congress

Daguerreotype, Father with his Son, Library of Congress

Calotype, Father with his Son, Library of Congress.

Calotype, Father with his Son, Library of Congress.

One wonders if Daguerre could have imagined the revolutionary nature of his image fixing process. Even if only a fraction of the 30 millions daguerreotypes were made, a decrease due to a licensing fee, he may have been vastly more wealthy than he ended up being. Here we arrived at our first startling question: if the Daguerreotype was seen as superior to its rival Calotype, with the one noted exception, and it’s rival creator perhaps intrinsically a poor business man, why would Daguerre not patent his process?

To answer this, we must first note that the Daguerreotype was a gift to the world with one substantial string attached: England would not have access to this gift, adding to the longstanding contention both countries already shared. Daguerre filed a patent for his process in the United Kingdom through an intermediary, Miles Berry, on August 14th, 1839 [6].

As it happened, Louis Daguerre initially did try to sell his process in france for a sum of 200,000 Francs [7], worth today about 5.6 Million Francs. This attempt was unsuccessful. At about the same time, Daguerre began relationship with a member of the French Academy of Science, who ultimately persuaded Daguerre and the Monarchy to release the patent.

Lunar animals and other objects Discovered by Sir John Herschel, Library of Congress.

Lunar animals and other objects Discovered by Sir John Herschel, Library of Congress.

Meanwhile, Daguerre was was in talks with Sir John Herschel of the British Royal Society. Hershel had been supervising a voyage to the antarctic, where the Daguerreotype would prove more favorable than the older Camera Obscura for scientific inquiry. Both men were hopeful that the British government would purchase the patent from Daguerre for British common use. Hershel even request that Daguerre send him a sealed envelope that be opened on the voyage itself, quite confident that the government would purchase the rights for only 3,000 Pounds, about $91,460 today. [8]

The French Monarchy offered Daguerre a pension of 6,000 francs per year, about $77,400 [9] to buyout the Patent. It was on August 19th, 1839 that King Louis Philippe released the patent [10] to the world. Curiously, the British Crown was unwilling to pay for the equivalent of just over a year of Daguerre’s pension to retain the same level of photographic freedoms for it’s citizens that France was willing to pay a lifetime for.

It may have been that Daguerre and the Monarchy could see far enough ahead to realize that enforcing the patent would be futile (a topic we will soon revisit) and that sooner or later, a better process would take it’s place. This buyout would also help to eliminate patent monopolization [11] - a practice that still occurs today. In the colloquial books of history, France would also hold the honor of being the country to release the process to the world - a political move they were very much privy to [12].

While the British Crown had little interest in buying out the patent, the citizens themselves did. Ultimately the photographer Richard Beard purchased the sole rights for the Daguerreotype from Miles Berry. His intention was to not only create Daguerreotypes himself, but also license the rights to other photographers in the United Kingdom and its colonies.

Beard fell into great success with this licensing [13] but soon encountered many of the problems the French must have foreseen: licensing the patent rights can be difficult to enforce. Within a few years Beard had already filed six lawsuits with photographers who had been using the Daguerre processing without paying licensing fees - or related disputes. Beard V Egerton set the foundation for alien Patent law UK, still referred to today.

Ultimately the costs of the lawsuits overwhelmed Beard’s resources and by 1950 he was bankrupt. This timing couldn’t be worse for Beard, as Frederick Scott Archer developed his collodion-process photography using glass plates. This methods was far less toxic for the photographer, far cheaper, faster, and could be reproduced. Like Daguerre, Archer did not patent his process [14].

Wet-collodion process, General Robert E. Lee and Sons, Library of Congress.

Wet-collodion process, General Robert E. Lee and Sons, Library of Congress.

 

Talbot sued Archer, allowing Beard another five years to license his practice. He continued to sell his photographs until 1857 when he handed his business to his son and returned to his previous career as a coal merchant. [15] By 1859 the patent could be renewed no longer, de jure.

After researching this topic, I’ve uncovered an interconnected web of lawsuits and financial gains that are oversimplified in to the short phrase “a gift to the world.” Surprising, unlike Archer, Beard, and Talbot - who saw little financial rewards for their photographic patents and licensing, it was who Daguerre made off with a substantial yearly pension, as well as licensing fees from his English patent.

Works Cited

[1] “Daguerre And Talbot.” Dawn's Early Light, Cornell University Library, 2011, rmc.library.cornell.edu/DawnsEarlyLight/exhibition/daguerretalbot/.

[2] Daniel, Author: Malcolm. “William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and the Invention of Photography | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2004, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm.

[3] “William Henry Fox Talbot | The Pencil of Nature | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267022.

[4] Photographs, Author: Department of. “The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper, 1839–60 | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2004, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/adag/hd_adag.htm.

[5] Barger, M. Susan, and William Blaine White. The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth-Century Technology and Modern Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

[6] Mcintosh, Alexander. A General Index to the Repertory of Patent Inventions, and Other Discoveries and Improvements in Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, from 1815 to 1845, Inclusive. 1846.

[7] Birchler, Urs W., and Monika Bütler. Information Economics. Routledge, 2010.

[8] Wood, R. Derek. “British Government Grant To The Royal Society.” History of Photography, vol. 4, Jan. 1980, pp. 1–16., doi:10.1126/science.84.2190.546.

[9] Bottomley, Sean. The British Patent System and the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1852: from Privilege to Property. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[10] Mcintosh, Alexander. A General Index to the Repertory of Patent Inventions, and Other Discoveries and Improvements in Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, from 1815 to 1845, Inclusive. 1846.

[11] Kremer, Michael R. “Patent Buyouts: A Mechanism for Encouraging Innovation.”Https://Dash.harvard.edu/Bitstream/Handle/1/3693705/Kremer_PatentBuyouts.Pdf?Se, Harvard University, 4 Aug. 2017, dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3693705/Kremer_PatentBuyouts.pdf?se.

[12] Lesk, Michael. “Digital Rights.” Http://Citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/Viewdoc/Summary?Doi=10.1.1.693.9735, Penn State University, citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.693.9735.

[13] “Richard Beard (English, 1801 - 1885) (Getty Museum).” The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles, The Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/2029/richard-beard-english-1801-1885/

[14] Lesk, Michael. “Digital Rights.” Http://Citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/Viewdoc/Summary?Doi=10.1.1.693.9735, Penn State University, citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.693.9735.

[15] “Richard Beard (English, 1801 - 1885) (Getty Museum).” The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles, The Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/2029/richard-beard-english-1801-1885/.

Kodachrome Magazine Review

Kodak announced their new "analog" magazine, Kodachrome, named after a film of days past. Not knowing exactly what to expect I preordered a copy.

Kodak announced their new "analog" magazine, Kodachrome, named after a film of days past. Not knowing exactly what to expect I preordered a copy. Here's a full review of the magazine.

When it arrived, I was... confused. My expectation, being that this was Kodak, was that Kodachrome would an Aperture quality journal of contemporary artists who used Kodak products. 

Yes, I expected advertisements - both subtle and not. What I did not expect was articles about writing with a pencil. A six page editorial about the color yellow. And a serious lack of printed images. 

More than anything, that's what struck more about Kodachrome: the high weight paper and irresistible matte finish beg for photographs - but they are largely no where to be found.

Ultimately, I turned on my video camera and recorded and honest review of the Kodakchrome, which can be found below.



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On the Artist Process

Moonshine

It was already midnight when Rich brought me up to his studio. Crumbs of sleep were already hardening on the edges of my eyes, but I knew that our best conversations occurred when I wasn’t quite sure if our conversation itself was just a dream.

What is the artistic process? It seems to me, that art is not some mystical process that we take great pride in fancying. Some great force that comes from the burning hearth of the soul. And certainly not some heightened cult that we must wholly subscribe ourselves to.

The room was lit with only a small incandesce bulb that seemed to only make the room more dim. Rich placed himself in his computer chair and I leaned back on a couch only feet from him.

One might think this was a therapy session, and in many respects it was. He listened through bebop swings of his guitar, and I talked through head nods. I gave up trying to film these sessions long ago, my iPhone couldn’t register the sound right (everything sounded tin-like) and the room was too dark anyway.

Rich is my cousin, a retired department chair from MICA in Baltimore. The refining of my artist practice took part here, through discussion and guitar licks, and a lot of personal frustration.

He — like a librarian who only provides you with the catalog number, but you’ve got to dig around to find the title you want on the shelf — never served me what I wanted easily.

You come across some books you’ll peek at, or revisit in a few years. No quite cyclical, but not liner, either. A learning that’s always resisting itself, always asking more than it’s answering.

Questions about life, art, and the artistic process always came with a catch: “I’ll give you a swig of my experience to get you started, but you’re going to brew your own moonshine and share it with me.”

I don’t think Rich ever drank, but if you met the man, you’d know he didn’t need to. His blood was thick, and made of the the blues that could only come from the men of the Iron Mills in Pittsburgh, where he grew up.

Parallel Lines

What is the artistic process? It seems to me, that art is not some mystical process that we take great pride in fancying. Some great force that comes from the burning hearth of the soul. And certainly not some heightened cult that we must wholly subscribe ourselves to.

Though, our reverence of the artist process is evokes these images. We hold art in the highest regard because it is the best of us. Let’s take the credit for our own genius.

The artistic process is the highest of our psychic processes. It operates by bringing together disperate systems, often times unrelated systems, and finding order and structure between them.

It is the two neurons bridging across the hemisphere of the brain. It is the “ah ha” moment that we feel when we come to understand something beyond ourselves. Something abstract. Come to a point of intersection between two parallel lines that we though could not exist.

This is why the art making process feels shamanistic, or mystic. It is euphoric, and feels beyond us. But it springs from the well of our history, knowledge, personality, references, hang outs and baggage.

It extracts and mines from the worst of us, our form, and distills the moonshine of ourselves. An intoxicating liquor. A substance that alters our world view, made from our own rotten fruits.

It can cure our pain. It drives some to madness, and can even blind us. Hell, it can even be bottled and sold if it’s good enough.

Robert Adams in Beauty of Photography remarked, “Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us confront our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”

What could be more comforting than to know that our wondrous artistic forums could be derived from our suffering, our anxiety, our loss, our compulsions, fetishes, lies, ignorances, our vices, our kindness, our pride, our intelligence, our consciousness?

Great Art

Art is ‘us stuff’, it is not subject matter. Perhaps this is what causes so many young artists to never create great art before they abandon their practices to the demands of daily life and office jobs.

When we consider a brain, new connections are bold. They are brilliant flashes of light. They are new highways between invisible cities — different fragments of the same consciousness.

Great art are neurons firing, and carving a path between the chasm of psychic void and disorder. Perhaps greater the chasm, the more bold the work. The starting point (the intention in first creating the work) and ending point (subject matter) matter little.

It is the risky and vulnerable process of creating the bridge which is the work. It invites others to cross and find the path pleasant to refresh themselves, or the height to wake them from their daily stuppor, or it does little for anyone and the work is discarded, ignored, or used only for the artists personal voyage.

If the bridge is great, then many come to visit and reflect. But this bridge is not static. As it is traversed more with reproductions, related works by the same or different artist, or parody the bridge grows to accommodate more traffic.

The neuron gains strength, and more tendrils wind off. This roadway becomes normalized. This neuron path becomes cemented into our collective understanding of the world. New paths will veere off of it, as new connections are drawn from the same axiom.

What once was void is now highly structured order, what is known as the cliche. Very helpful in drawing order, and communicating stories — but complicated when exploring the dark reaches of ourselves.

Art, after all, can only exist in the void, bringing from it matter. Where there is a road, there is no void. And we hit artist dead ends. Think: the “arty” portrait of a teenager girl. Or the “arty” photo of a chain link fence. Or the “arty” subject matter of photographing the homeless.

It is not that new art can not exists in these places, only that to do so, it must forge a new link to another neuron not yet discovered. It must traverse the void.

This is entirely possible (think Anthony Hernandez’ homeless photos) but the young or inexperienced (I myself guilty as charged) make the honest mistake that the ‘art’ is found in the crossing the bridge. They are drawn to the starting point and end point. The subject matter.

This, among many reasons, is why knowledge of art is so important. We must look in the void to pull matter from it. We may start here, or start there. It may be a deep or shallow chasm, long or short stretch. But it is here we must dug.

These are places that are hardly mystical. We carry these places, and the great artist can recognize the value in them, and structure a way to access or cross these places without too much danger as to be lost, but enough to stir our senses.

The artistic process is to brew from great depths all of the scattered molecules and neurons that float in the aether of our skulls.


Image credit: Anthony Hernandez.



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