Sunday, 20 April 2014

Play | Creating a 19th century daguerreotype photograph

In this post I will give a short introduction to daguerreotype photography and show how I recreated that characteristic look to produce this totally smashing 'daguerreotype' of me:

The daguerreotype

The daguerreotype photography process was invented in 1835 by French chemist Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Consequent developments led to cheaper and easier ways of producing daguerreotypes, and it become the first form of commercial photography. After being introduced in America in the 1840s, its popularity took off, but only a decade or two later, other less harmful processes such as the cyanotype took its place. This is a daguerreotype of Daguerre himself -- a meta-daguerre if you like:

Portrait of Louis Daguerre (1787-1851). 

I have found about ten mentions of daguerreotypes in the Irish emigrant letters I use for my PhD research, and I decided I wanted to recreate the look of such a photograph. You can imagine how fantastic the opportunity to send a picture home to your family back in Ireland after many years of building a new life in America must have been:
I gave
him a specimen of California Gold which
I send to you together with a Degaratype [Daguerreotype?]
of my children and myself, this will give
you some Idea of the looks of one who I have reason
to believe you once loved, and I trust that
that love is unchanged yet. 
(William Williamson, 18.06.1854)
Daguerreotypes were also sometimes taken of deceased people to be kept as a memento:
I send you the within Dag. [daguerreotype?]
of the dear fellow my much beloved son - His noble
forehead manly countenance & [and?] expressive eye are
admirably given - a more correct likeness could scarcely
be produced - you may all like to be able to form some
idea of what he was
(William Hutton, 08.02.1857)
People never seem to smile in these daguerreotypes, but evidently this was noted at the time as well:
Mother and Jane Ellen think you must have been cross
looking at the time as there is no appearance of a smile
Jane Ellen says no person should sit for a Daguerreotype
likeness unless in great good humour - We suppose you
must have been vexed at getting no news from home 
(Reverend J. Orr, 01.09.1847)
The process was a complicated one. First, the photographer prepared a silver-coated copper plate by exposing it to iodine and bromine fumes, then you would have to sit absolutely still for about 20-30 minutes (iron stands were often used to help people keeping still), and after the photo was taken the photographer exposed the plate to heated mercury vapour.

If done right, the images can be crystal clear. There are many stunning daguerreotypes left with incredible detail. The problem is often that the image is captured onto the aforementioned silver-coated plate which is very prone to scratching. And any small mistake during the whole process will be clearly seen in the result.

Digitally recreating a daguerreotype

For my recreation of a daguerreotype photograph I solicited the help of my good friend Gemma who is an amateur photographer, put on a serious 19th century face, a small book for extra points in sophistication, and some clothes that would fit the style (which I apparently wear normally anyway). This is the starting point:

Photo by Gemma González López
A characteristic of daguerreostyles is the accidental blurring of limbs due to the long exposure times. So, opening Photoshop the first thing I did was make a selection around the hand with the book with the Lasso Tool:

Select > Refine Edge with a Feather of about 30 px to make the selection blend in more with the rest of the image. I then added a Motion Blur in the direction the hand could have moved:

This looks good, but the background has also become blurred, and that is unrealistic. I added a Layer Mask to the 'Photo' layer with the blurred hand and, using a large, soft brush, painted out the blurred parts around the hand. This way, a copy of the image ('Photo copy') without blur showed through underneath:

I did the same for the right leg:

As mentioned earlier, daguerreotypes could be incredibly clear, but to make the photo look more aged and worn I decided to add a bit of graininess. Filter > Texture > Grain gives this option. After merging the two layers together, I used Grain Type: Clumped with the following settings:

Obviously, the result must be black and white. I like to use an Adjustment Layer instead of simply desaturising the image as it gives me greater control of the result. There are a number of presets which I also like to explore first. Often, I get just what I'm after that way. Here, the Black & White preset Darker did it:

Another characteristic of the daguerreotype is the scratched, metallic surface. I downloaded two textures from (you can find them here and here):

Lomofilm texture (left) and scratched surface (right)
I placed the two textures (lomofilm for the photographic plate-look and scratched surface for wear and tear) above the original layer and set their blending modes to Soft Light. 

Here you can see the stages -- no texture > lomofilm > scratches:

That's a lot better, especially around the edges. I didn't like how dark my clothes turned out, however, so I added a Layer Mask to the scratched surface-layer and removed some of the middle of it using a large, soft brush with 50 % opacity:

Better. Many daguerreotypes have a slight sepia-cast to them. I added a Photo Filter with Yellow to make the image look a little less pure black and white:

The chemicals used to produce these pictures often left stains around the edges. If you look at the photograph of Daguerre at the beginning of this post you can see the characteristic blue and orange stains along the sides. To recreate this, I made a custom Gradient:

The colours are (from left to right) #619998, #468388, #37313d, #94492a and #d2a33c. A stripe down the left edge to start:

That looks very wrong, but if we first set the Blending Mode of the stripe to Soft Light:

And then use Filter > Liquify to bend it a little here and there it will look more natural. Also, it's a little too strong, so a little increase of opacity will improve the look. Finally, I added another, weaker stripe on the right hand side and painted in a blue stripe along the bottom edge of the image to complete the look. 

Final result of the daguerreotype:

And there you have it. Using the very latest photographic technology and photo manipulation software to make something that looks like a product of the one of the very earliest photographic technologies.

William and myself sent our daugarietype [daguerreotype?] likenesses
home by to you by Mr Divine William said he boasted in his letter to you
that he was the better looking of the two but I am willing to leave it to
you all to decide between us, Jane used to be a good judge in such matters
and I am willing to submit it to her 

(Robert McElderry, 31.05.1854)


Photoshop: DAGUERROTYPE. How to Make a New Photo look Old. - YouTube


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