Calotype and daguerreotype are the two earliest techniques of photography developed in the nineteenth century. The daguerreotype is credited to Louis Daguerre who developed the technique in 1837 (Mifflin 97). William Fox Talbot developed the method in 1841 (Mifflin 97; Fox 16). The main difference between the two techniques is that daguerreotype involves the printing of positive images on a silvered copper plate within the camera whereas in calotype, negative images are created on silver iodide, which is then used to create a positive image (Robinson 1284). While daguerreotype only creates a single image, the silver iodide used in calotype allows for the reproduction of images (Robinson 1284). All in all, both methods were purposed to achieve the same outcome, albeit using different means of execution. Both calotype and daguerreotype are relevant for the role they played in creating a starting point for the genre of photography as know it today. The two techniques have produced different works, and they are evidence of technology’s role in aiding the evolution of photography.
The beginnings of photography can be traced with the invention of the camera obscura around the sixteenth century. The basic camera obscura worked by rendering the reflections of light on a surface, thus serving as an aid for visual artists to draw and paint their subjects (Hirsch 201). However, the image showed by the camera obscura could not be captured. It was not until the nineteenth century that inventors like Louis Daguerre made remarkable strides in recording the captured image. Thus, both daguerreotype and calotype were intended to achieving the same outcome – a means to capture the light fixated on a medium so that the outcome could be viewed on a permanent basis (Hirsch 201). The two processes were developed during parallel periods in history although the development of daguerreotype was completed and patented earlier.
Daguerre consistently experimented with copper plates coated with silver iodide, which culminated in the production of a light-sensitive medium in 1935 (Wood and Stilgoe 101). The medium produced positivemedium after an exposure of one hour. By 1937, Daguerre had learned to incorporate salt in the process, thus making the image permanent while preventing further exposure when the image was subjected to light. Daguerre would later improve the permanence of the photographs by using soda in the place of salt. For calotype, Talbot used a similar camera as Daguerre but focused on reducing the exposure time required to produce the images. The process used prepared paper negatives upon which the original image was printed before being processed to create a positive image (Wood and Stilgoe 103). Talbot discovered the usefulness of salted paper when experimenting with photogenic drawing processes. Additionally, he used the salted paper to print the positive images in a process that made it possible to recreate multiple copies of positive images from a single negative. Talbot announced the calotype process in 1941 and patented it (Wood and Stilgoe 102). Contrary to daguerreotype, whose accessibility Daguerre made free for access, calotype’s patent meant that those interested in using the process had to incur a fee.
Calotype and daguerreotype use a similar system for exposing an image. The two methods require considerable exposure time to replicate an image on the destination paper. However, the processes differ in various aspects, such as the type of paper, safety of the process, and permanence of resulting image. Unlike daguerreotype which required a single salted paper to produce an image, calotype required two types of paper, the first (which served to produce the negative) and the second (which helped in replicating the image as a positive). For the negative paper, writing paper with fine grain and without a watermark was used. This first piece of paper would be prepared by adding iodine before dipping in potassium iodide, cleaning off excess chemicals, and drying it finally. The chemicals used here are unlike those used in daguerreotype, which relied upon mercury fumes to expose printing paper in shorten exposure times. This made calotype the safer technique of the two.
One of the earliest known daguerreotypes is a portrait of Louis Daguerre (1846) by John Jabez Edwin Mayall (figure 1). The photograph depicts the outcome attainable through the daguerreotype mode of photography; an exact image produced in black and white. The image may not be detailed, but the fact that it captured a portrait provides evidence to the fact that Mayall succeeds at using the technique with minimized exposure time. The naturalness of blacks and whites within the photograph also represents an essential detail about daguerreotypes- proper fixation for permanence. This factor reinforced daguerreotypes’ popularity and encouraged more novice photographers to experiment with the process.
Figure 1: Portrait of Louis Daguerre by Edwin Mayall. (www.metmuseum.org)
This early portrait (Figure 1) can be compared to William Talbot’s calotype, Two Men in the North Courtyard of Lacock (1844) (figure 2). Unlike Mayall’s portrait, this early production of Talbot is a calotype negative, which has been waxed to make the image durable. The lack of the completed positive image highlights an issue with calotype that Talbot could not address until the 1850s – the failure to fix his images. The image shows inverted shades of sepia because it is negative, which do not represent the natural details that would have been produced on a positive paper. This image proves that unlike daguerreotype, the technology used in the calotype process did not attain its full potential until later.
Figure 2: William Talbot’s Two men in the North Courtyard of Lacock (1844).:( www.metmuseum.org)
Among the most famous daguerreotypes is John Adam Whipple’s Moon (1851) (see Figure 3). The image was taken using a telescope at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge. Indeed, the photograph is outstanding owing to the level of detail, as well as the aesthetic appeal it portrays. Additionally, it led to increased knowledge of the power of photography, not only in America but also across the world. According to the Metropolitan Museum, which houses a collection of the images produced by Whipple, the detailed photograph justifies astronomical maxim- the idea that the more the visual detail available for objects in space, the more beautiful they appear.
Figure 3: John Whipple’s Moon (1851). (www.metmuseum.org)
Worthy of comparison to Whipple’s Moon is one of the most famous calotypes produced during the period – Talbot’s The Open Door (1843) depicted in Figure 4. The photograph depicts a door that is half-way open, with a broom strategically placed on its way and held in position by the frame. What makes this photograph unique is the level of detail achieved, partly owing to the high tonal contrasts that dominate the composition. In fact, the degree of detail in this photograph justifies Talbot’s notion that photography was capable of achieving a level of perfection that could not be delivered through painting (Talbot 22). The Open Door was particularly popular in the British press not just because of its aesthetics and detail but also because it was done by a Briton and a representation of what the country was capable of achieving technologically. By the time Talbot produced a final positive version of The Open Door in the 1850s, he had learned new methods of fixing the photograph. It resulted in calotype being accepted as the more practical method of photography than the other type, particularly because it facilitated the reproduction of multiple images from a single negative. Soon after, calotype method of production gained prominence beyond Britain and later evolved to give birth to photography as is know it today.
Figure 4: William Talbot’s Open Door. (www.metmuseum.org)
Daguerreotype and calotype techniques of photography were developed under different circumstances, but their inventors were motivated by the same result – producing permanent images from obscure cameras. The daguerreotype technique was the first to be developed and made available for public use. One of the earliest known daguerreotypes is the portrait of Louis Daguerre by Edwin Mayall. Its calotype parallel is William Talbot’s Two Men in the North Courtyard of Lacock (1844), which shows that the latter process was yet to attain the level of progress that had been attained through daguerreotype. Although daguerreotype began as the more popular technique, the ultimate success of calotype, as evidenced by Open Door, made Talbot’s technique the more viable mode of photography. As such, contemporary methods of photography evolved from the calotype technique.
“Daguerre and the Invention of Photography.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dagu/hd_dagu.htm. Accessed 8 Nov. 2017.
“William Henry Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm. Accessed 8 Nov. 2017.
Fox, Talbot, W. H. The Pencil of Nature. Project Gutenberg (e-book# 33447), 16, 1844.
Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light. A History of Photography. McGraw-Hill Education, 2000.
Mifflin, Jeffrey. Capturing the Light: The Birth of Photography, a True Story of Genius and Rivalry. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.
Robinson, Andrew. “Candid Camera.” Science 352.6291 (2016): 1284-1284.
Wood, John, and John R. Stilgoe. The Scenic Daguerreotype: Romanticism and Early Photography. University of Iowa Press, 1995.