On January 7, 1839, the physicist François Arago, during a session of the Académie des Sciences de Paris, presented a new process developed by the French inventor Jacques Daguerre that reproduced images formed in the camera obscura mechanically and chemically, without manual intervention. The daguerreotype thus marks the official birth of photography.
A single picture on a shimmering copper plate covered with silver, polished and often as reflective as a mirror - an item it was often compared with -, the daguerreotype is sometimes, in France in particular, a disregarded episode in the beginnings of photography. Many books about the history of photography offer only a brief mention of Daguerre's invention, of which only the fad for portraits seems to subsist, mocked by Daumier and Nadar, a craze that seized a whole era in which people of all ages posed in front of the lens, erect and black. The daguerreotype thus appears only as a remarkable yet aborted experiment in the development of photography.
Yet the daguerreotype was to modify definitively people's perception of the world and its representations, both in artistic and scientific fields. The "new art in the middle of an old civilisation", in the words of the scientist Gay-Lussac in 1839, is what this exhibition seeks to present, centring on French production.
Following the small number of fine events in France devoted to this subject around the celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of photography in 1989 (Paris and the Daguerreotype, Suspended Time, Daguerreotype in Alsace and Photography Revealed), the Musée d'Orsay seeks to consider the daguerreotype in all its diversity. Alongside the portrait genre, that remained throughout the 1840's the daguerreotype's main field, and to which a vast section of the exhibition is devoted, mingling amateur portraits and professional ones of unknown people and celebrities alike, self-portraits and post mortem portraits, many other applications of this technique are presented.
For this invention occurred in an era that accepted no limit to its conquest of the world - of all worlds -, and whose scientific breakthroughs were exceptional. In a span of less than thirty years, as Gautier recalled it, "steam on the ground as on the sea, gas, telegraphy and electric light, galvanoplasty, daguerreotype" were to appear.
Some of the rarest pieces of daguerreotype will be exhibited together for the first time: still-lifes and views of Paris, works by Daguerre and other pioneers of the years 1839-1840, rare and precious testimonies from this immobile time.
Views of France will follow, documents full of poetry on Paris before Baron Haussmann, on the cities of Lyons and Nantes before 1845, first photographs taken in the Alps and during trips abroad, works of French daguerreotypists, often amateurs, who brought back views, portraits and landscapes of Egypt, the Far East, Greece, Siberia, Martinique and even New Caledonia.
The fascination the pictures produced from this new technique aroused for artists and scientists is also abundantly evoked. The artists' fear of loosing their prestige and the enthusiasm of scientists, who very early on saw the means to extend their field of research and record the different stages of experiments, were not unjustified.
A vast section focuses on the many links between the Fine Arts and this new intruder: daguerreotypes of nudes, between erotica and artistic academia, figures of great writers who wrote on the new technique - and sometimes even practised it (Hugo, Nerval, Dumas, Balzac), down to the use of the process by painters (pictures of artworks, animal studies). In parallel with this, another section concerns a few great amateurs both well-known (Bayard, Humbert de Molard) or totally absent from histories of photography (Eugène Le Boeuf), whose practice can be assimilated to an artistic approach. Science is present with medicine - first photographs obtained using a microscope -, physics and astronomy, and above all with the use of daguerreotype by anthropologists.
Besides, each section is also an opportunity to understand better the technical mutations the process underwent in the 1840's: colouring, the development of processes of Daguerrean engravings, the devise of accelerating substances limiting the posing time. Finally, contemporary documents are shown: newspapers, caricatures, paintings about the daguerreotype and objects (jewels with daguerreotypes, daguerreotypists' accessories), to help understand the upheaval caused by its apparition. The daguerreotype is approached not only in its esthetical, technical and documentary dimensions, but also studied as a true "phenomenon of society".