I thought I’d introduce you to stereoscopic daguerreotypes, one of the earliest forms of photography and stereoviews, and indeed, one of the most expensive and fragile too. You don’t often come across them, but when you do, and you’re lucky enough to see one of the beautifully tinted ones, you’ll stop in your tracks in awe! They really are the jewels of stereoscopy (as long as you hold them at the right angle!)
Stereoscopic hand-tinted daguerreotype depicting a portrait of a young man, ca. 1850s. Victoria & Albert Museum Collection. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1049550/stereoscopic-hand-tinted-daguerreotype-depicting-daguerreotype-unknown/
Daguerreotypes were first presented to the world in France by Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) in 1839. On the 6th January 1839, the Gazette de France made the announcement:
We announce and important discovery by our renowned diorama painter, M. Daguerre. This prodigious discovery rewrites all the theories of science concerning light and optics and will revolutionise the art of drawing. M. Daguerre has found a way of fixing the images that paint themselves on the screen of the camera obscura so that these are no longer just a passing reflection of objects, but rather their fixed and permanent imprint, to be carried away from the original scene like a painting or engraving.Gazette de France 6th January 1839.
The first official announcement about the daguerreotype process was made by F. Arago, the secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, on the 19th August 1839 (which is why the 19th of August is World Photography Day). The French government bought the invention from Daguerre, and made it freely available to the world, except in England, Wales and Scotland, where it was patented. This patent, however, was not enforced in Scotland.
Stereoscopic Daguerreotype by John Jabez Edwin Paisley Mayall. Collection of Denis Pellerin.
A daguerreotype is a photograph on a copper plate coated with a layer of finely polished silver. They are usually sealed under glass to protect the plate from the environment. The silver layer acts like a mirror, and at certain angles can look like a positive or negative.
Stereoscopic daguerreotype of Medici Vase by Duboscq, collection of Denis Pellerin. 1st three images were photographed to show the reflections of the mirror-like surface at different angles. 4th image is a scan.
When viewing a daguerreotype, it’s really recommended to wear dark clothing and check where your light sources are. Often, you’ll see your eyeballs or clothes reflecting back at you, which is interesting! Those clever Victorians, however, already thought about this, and several photographers used a built-in stereoscope in the cases of stereo daguerreotypes.
Stereoscopic daguerreotype with built-in stereoscope by Mascher. Image linked from this article from Collectors Weekly.
You’ll spot that almost all of the stereoscopic dags are parallel-view. There are some modern ‘conservators’ who remount the images the wrong way round, but the less said about this, the better.
One of the bonuses of stereoscopic daguerreotypes is that they can be scanned and enlarged without any hint of grain. A great way of seeing digital 3-D versions of them is during the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy‘s talks, on or off-line, where some of the best examples in the world are shared.
When you’re viewing stereoscopic daguerreotypes, you have to appreciate that the exposures were long, and, nearly always, the images were taken sequentially, which involved the sitter(s) standing still for a relatively long time. Could we do this today with such short attention spans?! That’s probably why you don’t see many people still taking daguerreotypes, well that and the heated mercury vapour used to develop the early ones! The depth was nearly always exaggerated too, which I very much enjoy.
Stereoscopic daguerreotype depicting a portrait of a young woman, 1850s, by Antoine Claudet. Victoria & Albert Museum Collection. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1049548/stereoscopic-daguerreotype-depicting-a-portrait-daguerreotype-antoine-françois-jean/
Lavéndrine states that few daguerreotypes portraits from the first years of the process have survived, but over the years the process was refined by several different people, including by increasing the sensitivity, and therefore reducing the exposure times.
Daguerreotypes are monochrome images, and any colour you see was delicately hand-tinted using coloured powder, fixed by the very careful application of heat.
If you’re lucky enough to own daguerreotypes, stereoscopic or mono, you really must look after them to ensure they continue to look great for generations. They’re sensitive to UV light, pollutants, heat, breakages, and oxidise upon exposure to air if the glass or tape seals are broken. Sometimes the oxidation and tarnishing is so bad it can obscure the images. There are, however, specialists who can help repair and conserve this, but it’s usually at the expense of the colour tint if it is a coloured daguerreotype. There’s a great example from the University of St. Andrews, who had Dr. Mike Robinson of Toronto repair two of their stereoscopic daguerreotypes using the electrifying process.
Stereoscopic daguerreotype, University of St. Andrew’s Collection. Image URL: http://special-collections.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/files/2019/08/after-2.jpg (needs a bit of alignment!)
You’ll remember Charles Wheatstone presented his invention, the stereoscope, to the world a year before the daguerreotype was announced, in 1838. Stereoscopic daguerreotypes soon followed, however, it is difficult to date exactly when the earliest one was. In Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D, Pellerin mentions a letter written by Henry Collen, which was published in 1854 in the Journal of the Photographic Society, which states that, in 1841, Mr. Wheatstone had approached Richard Beard for stereoscopic daguerreotypes for the stereoscope. Wheatstone, however, later attributed the first daguerreotypes executed for the stereoscope to M. Fizeau and M. Claudet. Wheatstone later again contradicted himself in 1856, going back to Collen’s version, when he remembered that he still had in his possession a stereoscopic daguerreotype portrait of Beard Junior by British photographer Richard Beard. He stated it was the first stereoscopic daguerreotype portrait, although he couldn’t remember the date it was taken, other than it was when Beard’s studio first opened (which was in March 1841). These daguerreotypes are not known to have survived; could they have been victims of the early process or the fragility? If anyone has them hiding down the back their sofa, however, please get in touch!
I was lucky enough to see an early-ish stereoscopic daguerreotype made for a Wheatstone mirror stereoscope at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. It’s a portrait of English scientist and inventor Michael Faraday FRS, which D. Pellerin attributes to Antoine Claudet in 1848-49:
Science Museum Group. Stereoscopic Daguerreotype Portrait of Faraday Images © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London. Science Museum Group. The original images in the collection can be seen: https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co17021/stereoscopic-daguerreotype-portrait-of-faraday-photograph Shared under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 licence.
I’m afraid I’m still the proud owner of two kidneys, so I can’t afford more than one stereoscopic daguerreotype, and you’ll find this post sparsely illustrated with my own images (but thanks to Denis for letting me share some of his too!) There are great resources though where you can see them virtually, printed, and in-person in the UK. Online websites with examples include:
The Victoria and Albert Museum: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/search/?q=stereoscopic+daguerreotype&year_made_from=&year_made_to=
National Museums Scotland: https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/
The Science and Media Museum, Bradford Collection: https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk
The Royal Collection Trust: https://www.rct.uk/collection/
Books with examples include:
Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D, written by Denis Pellerin, Edited by Dr. Brian May. Published by The London Stereoscopic Company, 2021. Available: https://shop.londonstereo.com/stereoscopy-the-dawn-of-3-d.html
A Village Lost and Found, written by Dr. Brian May and Elena Vidal. Published by Frances Lincoln Limited and The London Stereoscopic Company, 2009. Available: https://shop.londonstereo.com/BOOK-AVLF.html
History of Nudes in Stereoscopic Daguerreotypes, written by Denis Pellerin. Published by W. and T. Bosshard, 2020. Availability in different countries explained: https://stereoscopy.blog/2020/10/21/history-of-nudes-in-stereo-daguerreotypes-new-book-release/
Stereoscopic Daguerreotype. Collection of R. Sharpe.
References used for this post:
Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D, written by Denis Pellerin, Edited by Dr. Brian May. Published by The London Stereoscopic Company, 2021.
The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes, 2nd Edition, written by Christopher James. Published by Delmar, Cengage Learning, 2009. (A big thank you to Andrew Lauren for this book, it helps with my studies, research and analogue photography, as well as this post!)
Photography from 1839 to Today, from the George Eastman House, Rochester NY. Published by Taschen, 2000.
Photographs of the Past: Process and Preservation, written by Bertrand Lavédrine. Published by Getty Publications, 2009.
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5 thoughts on “Stereoscopic Daguerreotypes”
Dear Rebecca, Thanks a lot for this post. The attached might be of interest to you. Sorry it is in French. Unless somebody can help you in the translation I would be delighted to send you a version in English. Kind regards,
I’m really sorry, but I can’t see an attachment. If you don’t mind, please would you send it to email@example.com Don’t worry about a translation, French is fine, thank you so much 🙂
Great article. Now it has me wondering if there are stereoscopic autochromes. To the google!