Dover’s History Trip- Part I

By David Vestal Back to


Dover Publications has published a special version of the history of photography under the title, Great Photographs from Daguerre to the Great Depression. What’s special is that, with no written text, it presents 139 Royalty-Free Designs in a CD-ROM & Book as part of its large series, “Dover Electronic Clip Art for Macintosh® and Windows®.”

Much is included; more is left out. Oddly, there is nothing from Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Daguerre’s early collaborator, who made the first existing photograph that we are sure of in 1826. It’s in the Gernsheim Collection at the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin. It is not a daguerreotype, but used a much slower process invented by Niépce, who died before Daguerre invented his own entirely different method.

Written histories tell of three men, each of whom invented his own form of black-and-white photography. They all announced their methods in 1839: Hippolyte Bayard and Louis -Jacques -Mandé Daguerre, both in Paris, and William Henry Fox Talbot in England. Bayard made and exhibited direct positive pictures on paper; Talbot, using some of the same chemicals, made paper negatives that could be used to make any number of positive prints; and Daguerre made direct positives on silver-plated copper plates that were developed in mercury vapor. Talbot’s negative-positive method was the direct ancestor of our negatives and prints, but because his negatives were on paper, his prints didn’t have the amazingly fine detail and texture that was rendered by the daguerreotype.

Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, 1840, Hippolyte Bayard

Dover’s CD-ROM includes both low and high resolution files of all its photos. Whoever selected the pictures is not named. Perhaps a committee? I can’t agree with all of Dover’s choices, but many seem excellent to me. I have chosen from those. Among them are several that I’d never seen before.

Printing from the high-resolution files wasn’t difficult, though each picture was at least a little different to work with. Some needed little or no tweaking to produce good inkjet prints, but others needed much more work to get the tones right. Some of the photos are very clean; others sorely need spotting, the removal, done via Photoshop, of distracting spots and scratches. Dover apparently copied every photo just as it was, with no retouching, and that was the right thing to do. Some were apparently copied from poor prints: I gave up on one good photo, of which I had seen an excellent print, because I couldn’t make an acceptable print from the version on the CD. The ones I finally printed were more rewarding. I present them here with Dover’s identifying numbers.

On the sunlit street photographed from Daguerre’s window, probably in 1838, a man was getting a shoeshine on the corner. The daguerreotype was very slow then, and the street was probably not empty. People walking didn’t hold still long enough to register on the plate, but this man held still. Chemical ways to get pictures with shorter exposures were soon found, and daguerreotype portraits could then be made with exposures as short as, say, half a minute. Fast lenses helped. Josef Max Petzval designed an f/3.6 lens for portraiture in 1840, much faster than the f/14 lens that came with early daguerreotype cameras made by Alphonse Giroux.

Hippolyte Bayard’s 1839 exhibition in Paris of his invention, direct-positive photographs on paper, got little attention. Daguerre fared better: he was already a famous showman whose huge painted Diorama was a popular spectacle in the streets of Paris long before his photography appeared, and he had influential help in presenting his invention to the government. Daguerre knew how to get publicity, as Bayard did not, and Talbot was rich and influential, as Bayard was not. Bayard’s self- portrait as a drowned man, dated 1840, was made to illustrate his despair at not being able to compete with such high-powered rivals. I admire his sense of humor under the circumstances.

I don’t think Bayard made this photo by his own method. I think he used Talbot’s, as he certainly did later. It was widely used for business reasons by photographers who made and sold large numbers of prints of each of their most popular pictures, impossible with the daguerreotype. The sensitized paper was not red-sensitive, so his face and hands, but not his arms and chest, appear much darkened by exposure to daylight.

Haystack, from The Pencil of Nature, 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot

This picture of a haystack by William Henry Fox Talbot appeared in the very first book of photographs, The Pencil of Nature, which he published in 1844. It consisted of actual photographic prints made by Talbot and his assistants and pasted into the book. No one then knew how to reproduce any kind of picture except for print media such as etchings and engravings. A book of photographs was something completely new. And this old picture is new to me. It is a Talbotype, as he first called his method, in which paper negatives were contact-printed on sensitized paper. The technique is also called salted-paper photography, but that is a general term that also applies to other early processes, including Bayard’s direct-positive method. Talbot patented his process in 1841 and wanted to license people and charge them fees to use it. That didn’t last, and later such photographs were, and still are, called calotypes. This is no haystack, it’s a hay monument: great construction, wonderful photograph.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, 1844, Jean Baptiste Sabatier-Blot

Daguerre himself. Five years after his process was announced, L. J. M. Daguerre was photographed by Jean Baptiste Sabatier-Blot. Note the scratches and what looks like a generous sprinkling of white dust. The daguerreotype is vulnerable. If you touch its surface you will probably leave a mark. The daguerreotype was slow, and its photos were made with simple lenses used wide open to keep the exposure time short—a few seconds in very bright light. This portrait is blurred around its edges. Only the center is sharp. Simple lenses focus accurately only on equally distant points inside a spherical surface, not on all of a flat plane. Another problem was solved later by color-corrected lenses. Simple lenses focus light of different colors at different distances. “Chemical focus” involved a need to shift the focus from what’s seen on the groundglass to get a critically sharp picture. We focus on a groundglass by all visible light, but early photographic plates were sensitive only to blue light and ultraviolet, which focus at a slightly different distance behind the lens. Some early cameras had marks showing the shift required to get from visual focus to “chemical focus.” The difference was attributed to “chemical rays.” No one knew about the electromagnetic spectrum.

It took hours of spotting with Photoshop to clean up this picture’s scratches and spots, a task I took on to see how it looked when new. But so much retouching takes away some of the photo’s bite and character and makes a severe portrait look bland. For me it works better with all its scars and blemishes than when they are smoothed over, but finding that out was worth the effort.

Now look at Daguerre trying to appear relaxed. How firmly he’s braced on his arms, how stiffly he holds his head, how rigidly he stares. There’s a hint of desperation. He’s working hard to hold his pose, surely with a brace (not a clamp) behind his head.

These pictures on the CD are in jpeg format: “System require- ments: Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000, XP, Vista or Macintosh, all versions; CD-ROM drive.” The price of the book and CD- ROM is $16.95. To use more than ten of these photos in one project requires special permission from Dover, which was granted to photo technique for this series of articles.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.