A Daguerreotype

Daguerreotype Photo of The Melbourne Camera Club
The Melbourne Camera Club (formerly the Old Freemasons' Hall), 1998.
Alan Elliott ARPS

The Melbourne Camera Club (formerly the Old Freemasons' Hall), 1998. Daguerreotype process, 9 by 12 cm., gold toned. Exposure, 10 minutes @ f 8. Linhof Technika, 150 mm Symmar. Surprisingly, on scanning the plate, the image on the monitor appeared in colour. By co-incidence the colours although false, are appropriate. Alan Elliott ARPS.

[This daguerreotype was purchased from Alan by the State Library of Victoria at an exhibition at the Gold Street Studio, Collingwood, August 2002].

A Daguerreotype in the Colours of Nature?

Well, not exactly - but read on!  Something quite amazing happened recently. Ellie Young wished to include a daguerreotype I made a few years ago in an exhibition she is planning of modern work done by old processes. Further to that she wanted to use the image in the invitation leaflet and asked me to scan it and send it by email.

However, as my scanner is not working I went to visit Ellie at her studio. The scan initially was very dark and the image almost indiscernible but by reducing the density and tweaking up the contrast the picture on the monitor became really good. But the amazing thing was that the image was in colour! Not only that but the colours although not exact, were reasonably appropriate - pale blue sky and the Old Freemason's Hall building grey brown. The bitumen road, however, instead of dark grey was a dark golden brown. We were amazed. I have not seen any reference to this phenomenon. Had we not seen it with our own eyes we would not have believed it possible.

The capturing of colours was a prime aim right from the beginning of photography. Critics of Daguerre's process when introduced in 1839 were quick to point out its shortcomings. The image was laterally reversed, it was hard to view, but most importantly the colours were missing. The obvious solution was hand tinting but the daguerreotype surface was too delicate to accept the colours until Hippolyte Fizeau in August 1840 introduced his gold toning process which strengthened the image and hardened the surface. The Swiss worker Johann Baptist Isenring announced the first practical tinting process in 1841 using a mixture of gum arabic and pigments.  Richard Beard who had purchased the British rights wrote of this in 1843:

It was colour that was wanting to crown all the other improvements and give perfection to the whole. This was, indeed, holding the mirror up to Nature; and the result was that the spectator, whose image had been momentarily reflected in the glass, became the very transcript of his living self.

Hand tinting was a skilled craft which added to the cost, and furthermore the applied colours depended more on the taste of the colourist than truth to the original subject. Yet, many of the products of the established studios are exquisite, rivalling the beauty of the miniature paintings they sought to emulate.  But the ultimate aim was truth to nature and much effort was expended in trying to find a way of recording the colours as well as the tones in the camera, all in vain.

Electrolytic colouring methods were proposed, for example in 1842 Daniel Davis Jr patented a procedure in which colours were applied by placing the plate in a bath containing salts of various metals and applying an electric current. It is far from clear however how the process could produce different colours on the one plate. In an extension of his method a year later Warren Thompson claimed to have overcome this limitation by applying a resist consisting of gum tragacanth to those areas which it was desired to protect from the particular colour to be deposited. Between one bath and the next he removed the gum resist with hot water and applied it to the areas already coloured.

Then in 1850, Levi L. Hill  (1816-1865),  an obscure daguerreian photographer in a remote part of New York State published a booklet in which he claimed that:

Several years of experiments have led us to the discovery of some remarkable facts, in reference to the process of daguerreotyping in the colours of nature. For instance, we can produce blue, red, violet and orange on one plate and at one and the same time. We can, also, produce a landscape with these colours beautifully developed - and this we can do in only one third more time than is required for a daguerreotype. The great problem is fairly solved.

This announcement caused a sensation. The sales of conventional daguerreotypes, whether plain or hand coloured, slumped.  Hill was reluctant to publish the full details of his process until he was satisfied that it was perfect. He received enthusiastic support from no less a scientist than Samuel Morse who had seen some of Hill's work in his laboratory. Hill eventually published his procedure in 1856 but by then he had become the subject of much criticism and many had come to the conclusion that his claims were fraudulent and his results faked.  When  his process A Treatise on Heliographyor the Production of Pictures, by Means of Light, in Natural Colours became available  it was found to be complex and was criticised unfairly for being vague and obscure. The eleven steps are explained fairly clearly but the logic behind each one is left to the imagination. His process involved dangerous, poisonous and even explosive chemicals. After an accidental explosion of silver fulminate he remarked that 'I was as deaf as an adder for a week'. At one stage in the process it was even necessary to make a supply of hydrofluoric acid - a hazardous liquid which etches glass. A glance at his procedure was enough to deter all but the most determined experimenters. Then, as the publication coincided with the decline of the daguerreotype process, it is not surprising that heliography was soon forgotten.  Surviving examples of his plates show several muted colours on the one plate but it is by no means certain that the colours are true to nature.  Clearly, whatever its merits, Hill's heliography was never likely to displace hand colouring even if it had been available in the hey-day of the daguerrian era.

A modern researcher, Professor Joseph Boudreau claims to have replicated the long and costly process but noted that 'precisely how the colour is formed on the plates remains problematical'. Furthermore it is difficult to imagine how each of the applied colouring substances could find its way to the appropriate area of the plate. After all, the daguerreotype plate, even when sensitised with chlorine as in Hill's process, would be insensitive to green, yellow, orange and red and thus these colours would be represented only by the amount of reflected blue and UV, and thus bear no direct relationship to the original colour.

Now let us return to the plate which is the subject of this note. Looking carefully at the daguerreotype in diffused daylight at a critical angle, faint colours are in fact discernable and these are the similar to those found in the scan.. Presumably the observed colours have been accentuated by the scanning process but I must emphasise that no colours were introduced by software. But why were colours there in the first place? My first thought was that they are interference colours. We know that the colour produced by interference (eg soap bubbles, or a film of oil on water) depends on the thickness of the film.  Perhaps the thickness of the surface layer of the daguerreotype depends upon the intensity and the wavelength of  the actinic rays at each point and that this governs the thickness of the film and thus the interference colour. However I could find nothing in the literature to support this hypothesis.

Now, when Max Melvin scanned the Old Freemasons' Hall image he found colours similar to those found by Ellie, whereas an 'authentic' daguerreotype portrait of 1861 yielded only a rich brown tone. Presumably the brown tone, not visible when viewed in the hand, arose from the sensitivity of the scanner to the gold deposited in the gilding step.

Further research has shown that in some circumstances overexposed highlights can show as a bluish colouration on a daguerreotype plate. As an exposure which is correct for the building would certainly overexpose the UV-rich sky, this could well be the reason why a faint blue tinge appeared in parts of the sky area. Secondly, the gold toning process seems to deposit gold mainly in the mid-tones and shadows, thus there would be gold in the image of the building and the roadway but not in the sky. It seems likely that the scanning process is more sensitive to the faint colours than to the grey tones of the image. Seemingly, it was only by coincidence that the colours happened to be very close to those of the original.

From this admittedly small sample we may draw the tentative conclusions that the colours were not artifacts introduced by a particular scanner but were dependent upon some peculiarity of the image - in particular the blue of the overexposed sky and the gold toning which were both accentuated by the scanning process.  It would be interesting to scan an 'authentic' daguerreotype landscape  but I do not have an example to test.

I would like to thank Ellie and Max for their contributions to this note.

Alan Elliott ARPS


Sources: M. Foresta and J. Wood, Secrets of the Dark Chamber: The Art of the American Daguerreotypes 1995 . Michael Jacob,Colour and the Daguerreotype, The Daguerreian Annual, 1997.  B. Lowry and I. Lowry, The Silver Canvas, 1998. W.Becker,Patents for colour/reply/Levi Hill, email, 29 July 2000.

[This note was first published in a Royal Photographic Society newsletter]