In this age of digital photography everything happens rather quickly: However it took me many hours to create my first daguerreotype.
By Óscar Colorado*
I arrived early to the Plaza de las Vizcaínas in the heart of Mexico City. I wanted to take a few minutes to chat with Arturo Talavera so he could explain to me how to set my copper plate before the other disciples arrive to his Taller Panóptico.
One of the first photographic processes
Louis Daguerre partnered with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to achieve a wonder never seen before: the setting of an image using a camera obscura and a metal plate sensitive to light.
Before Daguerre & Niépece there were important developments to set an image in light sensitive surface. Even in 1839 many claimed to be the parents of photography ( William Henry Fox Talbot was the most important). Yet, the first to succeed were Niépce and Daguerre.In many ways the fundamental merit had been to permanently set the image. Daguerre brought the bussiness talent, of course, but also an extensive knowledge in optics developed for their shows at the Diorama in Paris.
While that gives maximum Niepce merit for their invaluable contribution to fix the image, the accuracy and quality courtesy of Daguerre put them in the lead, as Talbot’s calotype was inferior to that effect.
In 1839 he finally presented the Daguerreotype process at the Paris Academy of Sciences. By then Niépce already passed away.
The daguerreotype evolved with unusual speed because the French government bought the patent and immediately released for anyone could use (and improve) this technique. In just three years the Daguerre process was present in the five continents. The process eventually became what we know today as photography.
When I learned that Arturo Talavera was creating daguerreotypes I approached him immediately: I wanted to explore this process much spoken of. I wanted to learn this technique firsthand and understand what was the experience of creating a photography as the first artistis of this medium did. Also I wanted to personally experience everything that I had studied in my researchs.
I wore an apron and then started polishing my copper plate. I chose the one with fewer imperfections and used water sandpaper to smooth it as the first step.
In Mexico, only a handful of people currently make daguerreotypes and I am a proud member of this tiny group.
Talavera explains: «The daguerreotype is stronger than ever. Now there is a boom with collodion but I feel that the daguerreotype it will surpass it … Actually there is still much to investigate regarding the daguerreotype. »
The daguerreotype had many advantages: stunning detail and the ability to offer the public a portrait of a much shorter time and at a cost significantly lower to one made by a painter. But creating them was laborious and there was a major obstacle: it required very long shutter times that required the subject to sit still for minutes.
In the daguerreotype process the copper plate must be coated with silver and polished until it looks like a mirror. Then the plate is sensitized to light by iodine vapor. It was discovered that adding bromide vapors sped up the shutter speed up to 60 times. Further improvements dramatically changed the method until it was a completely different and new technique by itself. Although other practices such as wet collodion were also cumbersome, the exposure times were shortened even more. Eventually a photograph was sufficiently sensitive to freeze the motion and Eadweard Muybridge could create his photographs of subjects in motion.
Because the Daguerreotype soon evolved into other faster and cheaper techniques, the original method had a relatively short life.
Arturo Talavera explains that the daguerreotype «still has much to give. The Daguerreotype was never explored as an specific aesthetic tool: first photographer saw it just as a business, Daguerre took it as a business. »
The daguerreotype had a relatively short life: from 1839-1855 and then was replaced by ambrotypes and tintypes. So the daguerreotype as such was not sufficiently explored in all its possibilities. «We are making different improvements that at the time failed to develop» Arturo abounds while checking the plates of the participants in the workshop.
After the sanding I began polishing my plate until I obtained a mirror-like finish. Probably it would be much faster using mechanical tools, but I prefer to use my own hands. I can’t really say if it is better, but I do believe that it is necessary to me to first experience it in a primitive way and then take advantage of other tools.
The day before I was thinking in the kind of daguerreotypes I wanted to create: I immediately decided it would be two: a self-portrait and the picture of a camera. I explored both photographic genres for years. The self-portrait seemed an appropriate echo of nineteenth portraits. To photograph cameras has been a personal approeach for my own passion for these devices and also because I wanted to take a picture of my Kodak Retina IIa, gift made by my wife.
From photojournalism to alternative photographic processes
Arturo Talavera began his career as a freelance photojournalist and worked for more than a decade in newspapers such as Reforma, El Universal and El Sol de Mexico and agencies like AP or Notimex. However he confesses «I began to get tired of photojournalism. I wanted to change, I wanted to explore long-term documentary projects. And I had the need, the urge, to search new dialects for my photographic language. I had the opportunity to investigate old processes. I started working with a pinhole camera and other techniques. »
While the daguerreotype was the first photographic processes, it was the last to be addressed by former photojournalist: «I started to research from the cyanotype, van Dyke, gum bichromate, carbon printing …» However postponed daguerreotype because «… I was really interested but I had very little and useful information. I researched and realized that the people who were supposed to be experts in the field did not really know much more than I did. Also it was more difficult than other processes and I was researching many different things, until one day I committed to research the daguerreotype. »
While I brightened my plate Arturo continued:
In writing this article even my hands hurt by the seemingly endless polishing. Photo courtesy of Fabian Ontiberos.
«The daguerreotype had always intrigued me, it was something that remained unknown as a photographic processes. I realized that the time daguerreotypists died they didn’t document their secrets. I have investigated this process for more than six years. I made my first attempts but there were many things I did not understand and asked, researched and experimented. » He finally succeeded.
Arturo inspected my plate and told me to place it in a tray for cleaning grease so I could continue to the next step: the iron plated copper by electrolysis.
Arturo told me to apply the electrolysis process for two minutes. After another cleaning again I repeated the process. I had to repeat this two or times before exposing the plate with iodine vapor.
A new interest of collectors
Mauricio Zavala waits between steps in preparation for their daguerreotypes.
Meanwhile Talavera tells us that not everyone has the patience to pass the tests imposed by the daguerreotype. Yet for many photographers without obstinacy, time or adequate space exists an interesting alternative:
«Collecting daguerreotypes is a trend, definitely. There are organizations and people who already see collecting daguerreotypes as a business. Daguerreotypes can be expensive and hard to get because there are relatively few: many have disappeared. To identify them correctly it is important to look for bluish hues of the piece. There are people actively looking daguerreotypes, in addition to its aesthetic, as an investment. »
Arturo explained that Mexican daguerreotypes are relatively rare . The procedure was brought to Mexico by Jean Prelier, just three months after its official appearance at the Academy of Sciences in Paris. «There were some daguerreotypists who toured the Bajio (Central Mexico) region or who came south and those who worked in central Mexico are the best known. In Mexico the genre that was addressed in the daguerreotype was the portrait. Some daguerreotypes are now in small markets or in the Lagunilla Mexicans but are Europeans. If it is a portrait, there are more chances that itself is Mexican. »
I was exhausted. I took a moment to check out the Taller Panoptico facilities. It is an almost abandoned space in Mexico’s City Downtown. The place is full of jars and bottles with chemicals. In this digital age this reminds me that photographers were true alchemists, and that photography itself is a wonderful mixture of phiysics and chemistry. Even after working with analogue photography nothing compares to the immediacy and physicality of creating a daguerreotype.
I paused for a few seconds to inspect cameras that impatiently awaited for us.
The sensitization process
I finished polishing my plate and took it to Arturo so he could sensitize it with a rather ingenious device of his invention. He applied an iodine vapor bath. It is a very tricky process. He explained that if we moved to another shop we should recalculate everything because the process itself is sensitive to atmospheric pressure or humidity, to name just a few variables.
The plate was sensitized and it was ready to put my Kodak in front of the huge camera. I bent down and used a black cloth with which I covered for viewing, as did the photographers for more than a century. With these cameras you must run in reverse movements to frame. If one moves to the right makes the subject left, as from the top down. I carefully adjusted the focus as well as shutter speed.Everything was ready.
I pulled the chassis plate and then pressed the shutter. I left an exposure time of six minutes, as we were in full sun at noon May in Mexico City. A lot depends on utra-violet light, so that at different times of day changes the intensity of UV rays.
After the exposure, the plate was extracted in the dark room and placed in a box with a red jelly. There are two ways to make a daguerreotype: revealing mercury vapor (extremely dangerous possibility, although highly appreciated for their contrasting colors) or Becquerel method employing UV rays themselves for development. As a side note I should mention that these processes involve the use of hazardous substances and Arturo emphasis on safety and risk prevention is a relief.
Still had to wait longer, at least 45 minutes. Arturo told us about the daguerreotype in this era of photo apps for smartphones:
«There are apps [ FilmLab or RetroCamera , to name two] and plug-ins for Photoshop [such as Exposure4] to recreate nineteenth century techniques. There are many digital imitations. We live in a period that is now returning to the aesthetics of the daguerreotype.The daguerreotype is so beautiful that many have tried to emulate it digitally. Of course there’s nothing as the real thing.»
Four minutes without moving
While my first daguerreotype is under the sun it is time to do a self portrait. Fabián Ontiberos and Maruicio Zavala are also creating their own daguerreotypes.
The moment of truth: to stand still as stone for four minutes. In class with my students we performed experiments to be still for twenty seconds … And they thought it was a lot!
After choosing framing, focus and get everything ready it’s time to sit still staring into the enormous f/2.8 lens made for aerial photography and adapteb by Arturo to a Graflex Speed Graphic camera (such as those used Weegee ).
In four minutes the Talavera explains to me that the Taller Panóptico was founded in Veracruz. «We traveled extensively to Mexico City to teach these courses with nineteenth-century processes. What we seek is that photographers will find other outlets for their projects. A photo can have 16 or 18 different camera outputs and formats. What is offered to the photographers in the Taller Panóptico are possibilities and we do it in a democratic way and not be only an elite which these processes can work. »
I was really dizzy after all the time under the hot sun for so long. Finally the wait was over and it was time to prepare the board to let the sun develop the plate for another 45 minutes.
Below the red filter and look out the images. An hour later brought into plaques for placement of thiosulphate in the fixer and then are rinsed in distilled water.
The result is a true prodigy: it truly is a «mirror with a memory». It resembles a hologram, the effect is impossible to reproduce in a computer screen, what most comes close to see it on a video to see how they look in different angles that coexist in a positive and negative hard simultaneously.
I’ve been very lucky: my first two daguerreotypes have been successful. I just have to wait 24 hours to give the last gold chloride treatment for final sealing and protection in its case.
While Arturo Talavera locks the workshop concludes, «I say to all digital photographers to stop and try these processes. If you see five digital photos all look the same because it is a binary code and the eye detects it, instead, the daguerrotype has depth, has weight, it has a presence…. In the end the decision is yours: but I invite photographers to not close the possibility to enrich their work. »
The day was tiring but the experience yet it has been unparalleled. At the end there are two decisions that are clearly urgent: we founded on May 18, 2013 The Mexican Society of Daguerreotype and the second resolution: to close our day eating some delicious tacos at one of the traditional cantinas accessible to a few steps. As we say in Mexico: Does anyone like?