This summer marked the 164th anniversary of the death of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, one of the founders of photography, and the creator of the process known as the dageuerrotype.
I recommend you read my last post, which discusses Daguerre, his process, and his obsession, at: The Obsessed Parisian Set Designer.
In that piece, I promised this one. Technically, it’s late, but alternative processes tend to remove the hands of the clock; therefore, it’s pseudo right-on-time …
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The First Souls Taken
The morning light did as it wished.
On this particular morning, above the bustling Paris Boulevard du Temple, the light wished to drag Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre into consciousness for a special purpose. Daguerre blinked away sleep and hurried to the open window. His city became alive below his window.
The artist was primarily known for his theatre stage designs observed the street scene from a planned angle. He strained to see movement through the dim ground glass attached to the back of a device that he and his kind were calling a camera obscura.
At first, Daguerre saw nothing. He checked the lens cap. It was off. To block all ambient light, he dragged a blanket from his bed and covered himself and his camera. In front of his shaded eyes, images moved on the ground glass. It was as if he were watching shapes and colors randomly change places in an abstract painting.
Everything was upside-down and backwards because of the uncorrected lens, but this was good for Daguerre. Even today, some photographers see this as a major disadvantage in large format photography. To Daguerre, a well-respected stage designer, the uncorrected light allowed him to view abstractly.
He often used the camera obscura to see gas-lit stages of Paris from a different perspective. The lens presented stage sets as a flipped and inverted collection of shapes. This allowed him to see known objects in fresh, unexpected ways. Through the uncorrected lens, a chair became not-a-chair, but a study of shadow and light.
Daguerre refined his composition of Boulevard du Temple by making small movements in the small wooden box. When satisfied, he covered the lens. He then took out a copper plate that he had polished to a mirror finish the night before. Careful not to touch the surface, he placed the plate in a fuming chamber containing iodine gas.
As the plate became exposed to the dangerous fumes, Daguerre scanned notes from his past experiments. Once satisfied that the chemical reaction had made the metal surface sufficiently light-sensitive, he removed the plate. Carefully, he placed it in the camera’s plate holder, then he sealed the plate at the plane of focus in the rear of the camera obscura.
He looked at the street scene below, uncovered the lens, and waited. Daguerre glanced at his timepiece. It was a few minutes before 8 AM. He estimated this exposure to be about ten minutes for what was the morning’s first attempt at validating his process that was somewhere between physics and magic.
For him, the waiting was was the most difficult part. Daguerre waited, paced, and waited. Many times, Daguerre had imagined the final image. He scanned the street below, and tried to identify which parts of the composition he expected to be in sharp focus, which would be blurred, and which, being in constant movement during the exposure, would not reveal itself in the image at all.
Daguerre imagined the curtains opening on a stage scene with a single chair as the sole prop. Daguerre pictured a man walking from stage left to stage right, never stopping and never speaking a line. End Scene One.
If the lens of his camera obscura were open for ten minutes during that entire scene, Daguerre believed that the resulting image would reveal only the chair. He was convinced that no evidence of the man’s passing would be visible in the resulting photograph.
That is because, the amount of time that light would paint the walking man in any one position was negligible. The walking man would be in any one position for a split second. That, compared to the exposure of the overall scene without the walking man in it, was nothing.
The man would be painted out of the scene – or painted over it – by the vast majority of the scene before he passed through it, and afterwards. The end result of a constantly-walking man would be no man at all.
Daguerre imagined another similar exposure of the same scene. Only this time, a girl in a beautiful summer dress enters, sits in the chair for a few minutes, then stands up and exits stage right. Daguerre believed that this resulting photographic image would reveal a ghosted image of the girl. She would appear seated but half-there and half-gone, with the back of the chair showing through her.
As with the man, her entrance and exist would be transparent. However, unlike the man, the girl’s stillness on the chair would give her away. By sitting, she would be painted into the scene by the available light, for the time she remained still and seated.
Once she stood and began her exit, light would paint over the girl with the now-vacant chair for the rest of the exposure. She existed in the scene long enough to be captured, but not long enough to become a permanent part of the final image.
Daguerre asked himself questions in silence but answered out loud in his native French.
What if the girl remained seated for the entire exposure, but waved her arms up and down?
“Ailes,” he said to the open window. Wings. He checked his timepiece. Not yet.
What if her body remained still and seated, but during the exposure, she nodded, as if saying, ‘yes,’ to the camera, or to me?
“Démon visage.“ Evil face.
In that case, the same blessed light that gave her angel wings for arms would curse her with a permanent featureless smear for a face. Light was what it was, which is to say what it wished to be.
Daguerre re-checked his timepiece, breathed deeply, and reached for the lens cover. As he covered the lens to end the exposure, he exclaimed with a shout of expectation so loud and joyous that several patrons below turned toward him and looked up at the open window.
One who looked up was a gentleman who, for almost all of the exposure, had stood still while his shoes were polished. Kneeling before him was a boy who, during the exposure, had adjusted his posture to apply polish to his rag, and to tug his polishing rag back and forth across the man’s shoes.
Daguerre closed the plate holder and removed the plate for development. He placed the plate that held the latent image into a fuming box of mercury vapor. Again, Daguerre waited. Again, he checked his notes. At the estimated time, he opened the fuming box and removed the plate.
Daguerre held the plate by its edges. There was something there, an image. Something. If he were to touch the metal surface containing the image, even with the lightest touch, Daguerre’s fingerprint would have erased the image he had just created, the image that had captured, for the very first time in history, the photographic image of a human.
What if, Daguerre asked himself, during the exposure, I had opened the box, just enough to peek at the light?
Of course, directly observing the process would invalidate the process. Light needed darkness in which to work, just as the magician needs the black cloth and the top hat to point to for audience diversion. Daguerre already suspected what research scientists would confirm centuries later, namely that light does not like being monitored.
Try to build a photon trap. Try to observe the smallest, most fundamental form of light energy, the photon, and try to dissect it. Once upon a time, several hundred years after Daguerre, scientists make a hole small enough to allow only a single photon to pass at a time.
They put a slicing blade in the middle of the hole, something to cut the smallest piece of light energy in half so they can see inside, so they can observe what is inside light, and what happens when it is stopped. What they see defies their knowledge of the laws of physics.
This thing which can split no further, splits further, not because the blade slices the photon in half, but because the blade is in the photon’s way. Just before the tiny photon makes contact (literally, just before), it chooses to divide itself. The photon passes on both sides, reforms on the other side, and continues its mission.
I said the photon decides to divide, not in half, but into two smaller perfect, complete wholes of itself. Then, immediately after passing on each side of the blade, the two whole photons decide to re-become one whole photon. It continues on its mission, never even slowing down its original breath-taking speed.
I’ll say what some scientists have too much pride to admit. I give up. Light wins. We’ve got all of this past knowledge to build upon, and we know even less than we thought we did when we started.
This is not some rogue photon on performance-enhancing drugs. Every photon has, and will, do exactly as it pleases, whether carrying light into da Vinci’s camera obscura centuries before Daguerre, or bringing images onto sensitized plates, film or digital sensors of today.
For that matter, the unchanging (unless it wants to) photon will be there to deliver whatever serves as photography to our brain-embedded sub-atomic-sized computers of tomorrow.
But what would Daguerre have seen, if the light had allowed him inside the box during the capture of the first souls? What if he could watch the transfer? The research engineer and artist in me thinks he knows.
The first souls captured resembled whatever the living thing is called that is in-between the butterfly larvae and the butterfly’s final transformation, wings dried firm and completely un-catterpillered. He would have seen two of those things enter the lens: the shoe-shining boy and his customer.
Daguerre would have watched their souls ricochet off of each other as they passed through the cylinder of the brass lens. The would have dropped from thin air, confused, trembling legs bent wild, torsos contorted, two former-caterpillars and yet-to-be-butterflies, flitting hints of fresh wings dusted with morning Paris light, disturbing the stale air of the box. Just before impact against the black interior of the box, they would have soared. Light would have seen to it. Daguerre would have witnessed alchemy.
Even without witnessing, Daguerre was overjoyed at seeing his image. He is said to have exclaimed:
“I have seized the light – I have arrested its flight!”
The words, “seized,” and, “arrested,” describe a violent struggle. If Daguerre had interfered with the image-making process, he may have damned the souls of the two subjects to an eternal purgatory twenty feet above Boulevard du Temple.
Or with too much interference, maybe his own Essence would have been sucked into his box. That would have have been quite a surprise to see the first souls taken from that perspective.
Enough speculation. Let’s be honest. The first souls taken were not the shoe shine boy and his customer. Those two landed in the laps of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Robert Cornelius, William Henry Fox Talbot, Sir John Herschel, Frederick Scott Archer, Dr. John W. Draper, and several other founders of the art and craft we call photography.
But whose laps did the founding fathers of 1800s photography land in? A argument exists for several non-European inventors who may have been there to cushion the landing of Niépce and others.
If we keep pulling souls out of the pile, we will finally reach the real first ones taken. The original trapped souls crash-landed there 1,200 years before the mass soul collection of the 1830s even took place, and over 200 years more before the Great Selfie Soul Collection of the mid 2010s stuffed boxes full.
The first souls taken, the very first, were most likely from the 5-6th centuries. Can you imagine the soul discussions that must have taken place between Greek mathematicians, Euclid and Aristotle, and Chinese philosopher, Mo Ti locked tight in a box together for 1,200 years?
Can you imagine? That’s the beauty of photography. We don’t need to imagine. We’ve got evidence.
So, pick up your camera. Shake it and listen. Even if it’s digital, shake it. Listen. They are in there. If you are the adventurous type, open the box. Peek inside, preferably during an exposure. Go ahead. I dare you. I promise, they’re all there. All souls taken.
If you see yourself, say hello. Wave. It’s okay. It’s the real you, the truest part. The one holding the camera is still in the larval stage. Those of us on this side of the box, we are the tapped ones. We are the ones in danger of being only observers, the first souls taken nowhere.
Please don’t be found walking across the stage during an exposure, never stopping to participate, and leaving no evidence of existence. Let’s at least stop long enough to become permanent ghosts in our work.
Wave arms for wings, blur your faces, if only for the pleasure of the photons, the only particles in the known universe that make up the rules as they go along.
Let photography take your soul again. I’m trying as hard as I can to do just that.
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