Professor Draper on the process of Daguerreotype and its application to taking portraits from life.




Draper, John William, 1811-1982.


Journal : London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science; v. xvi.

London : Taylor & Francis, 1840.

Description : page 535.

Subject : Portrait Daguerreotypy.

Note :






Dorothy Draper, the author's sister and first subject.


Draper's paper on accomplishing the first photograph of a human subject was reprinted in his memoirs with the following prefatory remarks:

HISTORICAL NOTE. This Memoir contains the first published description of the process for taking daguerreotype portraits. Of late, since the introduction of collodion, this art has been much cultivated and improved. It now forms an important branch of industrial occupation. That it was possible by photogenic processes, such as the daguerreotype, to obtain likenesses from the life, was first announced by the author of this volume in a note to the editors of the Philosophical Magazine, dated March 31, 1840, as may be seen in that journal for June, 1840, p. 535. The first portraits to which allusion is made in the following Memoir were produced in 1839, almost immediately after Daguerre's discovery was known in America.

In the Edinburgh Review for January, 1843, there is an important article on Photography. In that the invention of the art of taking photographic portraits is attributed to its true source — the author of this book. It says: " He was the first, we believe, who, under the brilliant summer sun of New York, took portraits by the daguerreotype. This branch of photography seems not to have been regarded as a possible application of Daguerre's invention, and no notice is taken of it in the reports made to the legislative bodies of France. We have been told that Daguerre had not at that period taken any portraits; and when we consider the period of time — twenty or twenty-five minutes — which was then deemed necessary to get a daguerreotype landscape, we do not wonder at the observation of a French author, who describes the taking of portraits as ' Toujours un terrain un peu fabuleux pour le Daguerreotype?' "

Very soon after M. Daguerre's remarkable process for photogenic drawing was known in America, I made attempts to accomplish its application to the taking of portraits from the life. M. Arago had already stated in his address to the Chamber of Deputies that M. Daguerre expected by a slight advance to meet with success, but as yet no account had reached us of that object being attained.

Very soon after M. Daguerre's remarkable process for photogenic drawing was known in America, I made attempts to accomplish its application to the taking of portraits from the life. M. Arago had already stated in his address to the Chamber of Deputies that M. Daguerre expected by a slight advance to meet with success, but as yet no account had reached us of that object being attained. — Page 215 [MEMOIR XV].

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Professor Draper on the process of Daguerreotype and its application to taking portraits from life.

In the first experiments which I made for obtaining portraits from the life, the face of the sitter was dusted with a white powder, under an idea that otherwise no impression could be obtained. A very few trials showed the error of this; for even when the sun was only dimly shining, there was no difficulty in delineating the features.

When the sun, the sitter, and the camera are situated in the same vertical plane, if a double convex non-achromatic lens of four inches diameter and fourteen inches focus be employed, perfect miniatures can be procured, in the open air, in a period varying with the character of the light, from twenty to ninety seconds. The dress also is admirably given, even if it should be black; the slight differences of illumination are sufficient to characterize it, as well as to show each button, button-hole, and every fold.

Partly owing to the intensity of such light, which cannot be endured without a distortion of the features, but chiefly owing to the circumstance that the rays descend at too great an angle, such pictures have the disadvantage of not exhibiting the eyes with distinctness, the shadow from the eyebrows and forehead encroaching on them.

To procure fine proofs, the best position is to have the line joining the head of the sitter and the camera so arranged as to make an angle with the incident rays of less than ten degrees, so that all the space beneath the eyebrows shall be illuminated, and a slight shadow cast from the nose. This involves obviously the use of reflecting mirrors to direct the ray. A single mirror would answer, and would economize time, but in practice it is often convenient to employ two; one placed, with a suitable mechanism, to direct the rays in vertical lines; and the second above it, to direct them in an invariable course towards the sitter.

On a bright day, and with a sensitive plate, portraits can be obtained in the course of five or seven minutes, in the diffused daylight. The advantages, however, which might be supposed to accrue from the features being more composed, and of a more natural aspect, are more than counterbalanced by the difficulty of retaining them so long in one constant mode of expression.

On a bright day, and with a sensitive plate, portraits can be obtained in the course of five or seven minutes, in the diffused daylight. The advantages, however, which might be supposed to accrue from the features being more composed, and of a more natural aspect, are more than counterbalanced by the difficulty of retaining them so long in one constant mode of expression.

But in the reflected sunshine, the eye cannot support the effulgence of the rays. It is therefore absolutely necessary to pass them through some blue medium, which shall abstract from them their heat, and take away their offensive brilliancy. I have used for this purpose blue glass, and also ammoniacosulphate of copper, contained in a large trough of plate glass, the interstice being about an inch thick, and the fluid diluted to such a point, as to permit the eye to bear the light, and yet to intercept no more than was necessary. It is not requisite, when coloured glass is employed, to make use of a large surface; for if the camera operation be carried on until the proof almost solarizes, no traces can be seen in the portrait of its edges and boundaries; but if the process is stopped at an earlier interval, there will commonly be found a stain, corresponding to the figure of the glass.

The camera I have used, though much better ones might be constructed, has for its objective two double convex lenses, the united focus of which for parallel rays is only eight inches; they are four inches in diameter in the clear, and are mounted in a barrel, in front of which the aperture is narrowed down to 3 1/2 inches, after the manner of Daguerre's.

The chair in which the sitter is placed, has a staff at its back, terminating in an iron ring, that supports the head, so arranged as to have motion in directions to suit any stature and any attitude. By simply resting the back or side of the head against this ring, it may be kept sufficiently still to allow the minutest marks on the face to be copied. The hands should never rest upon the chest, for the motion of respiration disturbs them so much, as to bring them out of a thick and clumsy appearance, destroying also the representation of the veins on the back, which, if they are held motionless, are copied with surprising beauty.

It has already been stated, that certain pictorial advantages attend an arrangement in which the light is thrown upon the face at a small angle. This also allows us to get rid entirely of the shadow from the back-ground, or to compose it more gracefully in the picture; for this, it is well that the chair should be brought forward from the back-ground, from three to six feet.

Those who undertake Daguerreotype portraitures, will of course arrange the back-grounds of their pictures according to their own tastes. When one that is quite uniform is desired, a blanket, or a cloth of a drab colour, properly suspended, will be found to answer very well. Attention must be paid to the tint: white, reflecting too much light, would solarize upon the proof before the face had had time to come out, and owing to its reflecting all the different rays, a blue or irradiation would appear on all edges, due to chromatic aberration. It will be readily understood, that if it be desired to introduce a vase, an urn, or other ornament, it must not be arranged against the background, but brought forward until it appears perfectly distinct on the obscured glass of the camera.

Different parts of the dress, for the same reason, require intervals, differing considerably, to be fairly copied — the white parts of a costume passing on to solarization before the yellow or black parts have made any decisive representation. We have therefore to make use of temporary expedients. A person dressed in a black coat, and open waistcoat of the same colour, must put on a temporary front of a drab or flesh colour, or by the time that his face and the fine shadows of his woollen clothing are evolved, his shirt will be solarized, and be blue, or even black, with a white halo around it. Where, however, the white parts of the dress do not expose much surface, or expose it obliquely, these precautions are not essential; the white shirt collar will scarcely solarize until the face is passing into the same condition.

Precautions of the same kind are necessary in ladies' dresses, which should not be selected of tints contrasting strongly.

It will now be readily understood that the whole art of taking daguerreotype miniatures, consists in directing an almost horizontal beam of light, through a blue-colored medium, upon the face of the sitter, who is retained in an unconstrained posture, by an appropriate but simple mechanism, at such a distance from the background, or so arranged with respect to the camera, that his shadow shall not be copied as a part of his body; the aperture of the camera should be three and a half or four inches at least, indeed the larger the better, if the objective be aplanatic.

If two mirrors be made use of, the time actually occupied by the camera operation varies from forty seconds to two minutes, according to the intensity of the light. If only one mirror is employed, the time is about one fourth shorter. In the direct sunshine, and out in the open air, the time varies upwards from half a minute. Looking-glasses which are used to direct the solar rays after a short time undergo a serious deterioration, the silvering assuming a dull granular aspect, and losing its black brilliancy. Hence the time, in copying, becomes gradually prolonged.

The arrangement of the camera above indicated gives reversed pictures, the right and left sides changing places. Mr. Woolcott, an ingenious mechanician of this city, has taken out a patent for the use of an elliptical mirror for portraiture; it is about seven inches in aperture, and allows him to work conveniently with plates two inches square. The concave mirror possesses this capital advantage over the convex lens, that the proof is given in its right position; that is to say, not reversed; but it has the serious inconveniences of limiting the size of the plate, and representing parts that are at all distant from the centre in a very confused manner. With the lens, plates might be worked a foot square, or even larger.

Miniatures procured in the manner here laid down are in most cases striking likenesses, though not in all. They give, of course, all the individual peculiarities — a mole, a freckle, a wart. Owing to the circumstance that yellow and yellowish browns are long before they impress the substance of the daguerreotype, persons whose faces are freckled all over give rise to the most ludicrous results, a white portrait mottled with just as many black dots as the sitter had yellow ones. The eye appears beautifully: the iris with sharpness, and the white dot of light upon it with such strength and so much of reality and life as to surprise those who have never before seen it. Many are persuaded that the pencil of the painter has been secretly employed to give this finishing touch.

UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, September, 1840.





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