Expanding Human Vision — Daguerre

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd arrondissement, Daguerreotype. Made in 1838 by inventor Louis Daguerre, this is believed to be the earliest photograph showing a living person.

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre invented an early form of photography and changed the way we see the world. Before he got into photography, Daguerre was a painter and an illusionist well-known for inventing a form of virtual reality known as the Diorama. Daguerre painted scenes on very large (typically 70 ft x 45 feet) pieces of translucent material. By painting on both sides of the material and varying the angle of the light, sometimes from in front, sometimes from in back, Daguerre could create the illusion of movement and depth in the image. The audience viewed these works in special theaters that were specially designed and built to control the lighting of the pictures. Daguerre mounted is first public show in 1821. Dioramas and similar Panoramas were popular entertainments for the rest of the decade.

Daguerre’s work creating dioramas stimulated him to think of ways to capture the images produced by the camera obscura. This is a low-tech device uses ambient light to project images onto a screen, and it has been around for centuries. Daguerre partnered with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who discovered a chemical means of capturing a permanent image with sun light in 1813. Daguerre made improvements to Niépce’s process, such as increasing its speed and creating a portable camera. These made it suitable for wide application. François Arago, Permanent Secretary of the Academy of Science, immediately saw the potential for this invention, and he lobbied the French government to purchase the patent and make the technology freely available for anyone to use and ultimately improve on. As a result, the invention of Daguerre and Niépce became very popular, and the term “daguerreotype” generally refers to photographs taken in the mid-19th century.

The ability to produce images automatically, without relying on the interpretation of a human artist as an intermediary, opened new avenues of scientific study, and members of the Academy of Science were among the first to take an interest. Fizeau and Foucault collaborated with Arago on applications in astronomy, and they produced the first photographic image of the sun. Outside of the laboratory, Regnault was one of many amateur photographers who captured scenes of daily life. The invention of photography made widely available the ability to view things that are too small or fleeting or otherwise outside of the normal range of human vision. Camera, film and the process of printing images serve as metaphors for understanding the mechanics of vision and limitations on perception. And in the present day, it is through photography that science delivers on the promise to transport people to other planets, albeit imperfectly.

Louis Daguerre is one of the 72 scientists and engineers named on the Eiffel Tower.

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