Today, the act of capturing a moment in a still image is as simple as clicking a button. 179 years ago, the story was quite different. On January 7, 1839 an invention was unveiled that would change the landscape of visual representation forever and mark the birth of modernism. 

Daguerreotypes were the precursor to photography as we know it today. Invented by painter and printmaker Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, daguerreotypes were a completely unique image on a polished, silver-plated sheet of copper. These one-of-a-kind artworks marked the start of a groundbreaking marriage between science and art. As Daguerre revealed his invention to members of the French Académie des Sciences, the process appeared almost magical. Each image was created on a polished, silver-plated sheet of copper, sensitised with iodine vapours, exposed in a box camera, developed in mercury fumes and fixed with salt water. Unlike the printed photographs we know today, daguerreotypes are extremely fragile and heavy and are typically displayed in a decorative frame or leather-bound case. The earliest daguerreotype portraits were often so small, a magnifying glass was needed to appreciate the finer detail. In a tragic turn of events, on March 8th 1839, Daguerre’s Diorama and laboratory burnt to the ground in a fire, destroying his early experiments and records. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fewer than twenty-five Daguerre photographs survive to this day. 

Named by Bloomberg as one of the 10 most exciting art exhibitions of 2018, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. is commemorating 50 years of collecting daguerreotypes with a large scale installation. Daguerreotypes : Five Decades of Collecting runs from June 15th 2018 until June 2nd 2019. 

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