Jerry Spagnoli

After digitally creating my own Daguerreotype, I wondered whether there were any photographers using the original photographic process today. Whilst searching on the Internet I came across the American photographer Jerry Spagnoli. In 1995, after familiarising himself with the technique that was invented in 1839, Spagnoli started his project 'The Last Great Daguerreian Survey of the 20th Century”. His project features views of the metropolis and historical figures. He also photographed Times Square entering the new millennium. Examples of his work can be viewed on his website.

Spagnoli's images have a rich, timeless quality with a subtle range of monochrome tones. The long exposure times that he would have needed illustrates the hustle and bustle of people passing in front of his Daguerreotype. I tend to rely on altering the aperture setting on my camera, but Spagnoli's exposures have inspired me to experiment more with adjusting the shutter speed. Maybe one day I'll have a go at making my own Daguerreotype!

Finding the right type

In a previous post, A New Painting, I referred to how Joseph Nicephore Niepce made the innovative breakthrough of creating a permanent photographic image in c.1826. Before then painting was the main method of recording an image on paper.

Unfortunately Nicéphore Niépce died in 1833, and so he had very little time to refine and build on his discovery. For a short while he collaborated with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre to refine the process. He was a decorator, manufacturer of mirrors and panorama painter of theatrical stage illusions. Daguerre's artistic and stage design led him to invent the 'diorama'. A diorama was a mobile theatrical experience viewed by an audience in highly specialised theatres.

In order to reproduce the large scale panoramas, Daguerre would have used a camera obscura to project an image that could be traced. Luckily for photography, both Niépce and Daguerre shared the same optician, Vincent Chevalier, who was responsible for the two pioneers of photography meeting for the first time in December 1827. It is interesting to note that the partnership consisted of an artist and a scientist. Right from its infancy, photography was born as both an art form and a science. Despite this new partnership, Niépce and Daguerre were unable to significantly reduce the exposure time of the bitumen process. This meant that it was impossible to photograph people without them being blurred and having to sit for unacceptably long periods of time. However between them they had formulated a new 'physautotype' process, using tree resins and the residue of lavender oil distillation as photosensitive agents.

Daguerre and Niépce's partnership was forged by a legally binding contract that stated:

In the eventuality of one of the partners demise, this one will be replaced in the company for the rest of the ten years that would not be expired, by his natural heir.

Therefore after Nicephore Niépce's death in 1833, his son Isidore Niépce, continued to work alongside Daguerre. Unfortunately Isidore was unable to provide the same level of expertise as his father, leaving Daguerre to pursue and refine his own process, which would eventually be known as the daguerreotype. Using his own name in his invention secured Daguerre's place in history, showing little acknowledgement for Nicephore Niépce's involvement. Like the first heliographic exposures he made in the early 1820s, the founder of the permanent photograph faded from history.

Offering a much shorter exposure time, the daguerreotype is a direct positive made in the camera on a silvered coppered plate. The plate is mirrored, with the image formed directly on the silvery surface. Fitting lenses with larger diameters to the camera and modifying the chemistry involved, enabled the exposure time to be reduced even further.

After a presentation to the Sciences Academy of the three photographic processes (heliography, physautotype, and daguerreotype) on Monday 19th August 1839, it was clear that only Daguerre's process would be successful. This innovation would quickly lead to Daguerreotypomania throughout France.




French School (? - 1900) “Founders of photography Niepce and Daguerre with photographer" (chromolitho). [online image]. Private Collection. Available from: [3/5/13]

The first ever selfie.

The first ever selfie, by Robert Cornelius.

Selfies are all the rage at the moment but have you ever wondered who took the first selfie? That accolade goes to Robert Cornelius. On a sunny day in October 1839, Cornelius sat for more than a minute in front of his camera in the back of his father's gas lamp-importing business in Philadelphia. The resulting exposure was the first photographic self-portrait.

Unable to post his selfie to Facebook, Robert Cornelius wrote on the back of his photograph:

The first light picture ever taken. 1839.

The first selfie!


The new painting

Is photography art? Is a question I've reflected on in previous blog posts, whilst studying DPP. That there are varying levels of commitment that a photographer may invest in producing an image. When photographing a landscape, the photographer may take considerable thought to choose the perfect location and waited until the light was at its optimum, before pressing the shutter. On the other hand a street photographer may need to act quickly, on impulse, to capture scenes where people are unaware of his/her presence. Does the lack of time required mean that the street photo is any less 'art' than the landscape image? Furthermore, does the digital manipulation of an image make it any less realistic and more artistic than the original scene?Perhaps the reason for this unresolved debate is due to the fact that the first camera, the camera obscura, was created to assist artists in producing accurate pictures, enabling them to trace the image that had been projected by the pin-hole camera.


The camera obscura (latin for 'dark room') was a wooden box that allowed the light of a scene to enter a small hole and be projected upside down, retaining perspective. Some examples can be viewed here on the Victoria and Albert Museum website.
Whilst this tool for artists enabled them to reproduce an accurate representation of the scene in front of them, they still had to draw it onto paper in order to preserve the projected image.
Then one summers day in c.1826 a french inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, went upstairs and took the first ever permanent photograph from the window of his country estate near Chalon sur-Saône (Badger, 2007). You would think that such a prestigious, ground-breaking development would be something of great interest, and yet Niépce's 'View from the Window at Gras' is quite mundane.


Niépce coated a pewter plate with a tar-like substance (a mixture of bitumen of Judea and water). Then he heated the pewter plate to dry the bitumen mixture onto it. Once the mixture had dried, Niépce slotted the plate into a camera that looked out of an upstairs window. After an exposure time of 8 hours, he then washed the pewter plate with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum, which washed away the bitumen that had not been hardened by sunlight. The resulting photograph consisted of light areas, formed from the hardened bitumen, and dark areas where the bitumen had been washed away, revealing the pewter plate. Finally the image was left to dry in the air, and Niépce had successfully developed the world's first permanent photograph. This had been the culmination of a number of experiments involving his heliography process. Previously Niépce had been able to combine sunlight with lithographic printmaking to expose an image, but had never been able to prevent it from fading.

An animation of Niépce's groundbreaking discovery can be seen below.

Returning to my original question, 'Is photography art?' Niépce's photographic process was defined as 'the new painting' (Badger, 2007), which would eventually grow into it's own creative field. It would be used to document and decorate, but as Niépce has shown, it is arguably just as much to do with science and maths as it is art.


Badger, G. (2008) The Genius of Photography. London: Quadrille Publishing.