Smithsonian

Lesson Extension

Daguerreotype to Digital

The great step in photography in recent years is the advent of digital imagery. Photography had always been a matter of light impressing itself on a chemically treated surface. Digital cameras create images by converting light into numbers, which correspond to tone and color.

In practical terms, digital technology has given such immediacy to photography that there is almost no distance between the act of taking a picture and the act of viewing the picture. If we don't like how the picture came out, we can snap a dozen or a hundred more to get it right. Or we can manipulate the image on a computer to create something new.

This is a far cry from the technology of the daguerreotype. Merry Foresta writes: "The earliest photographs required exposures of several minutes -- sitting before the camera demanded patience. Sometimes a brace kept the head from moving; often the sitter leaned against a table."

Many people got only one chance to sit for a photographer. If the sitter had a lot of work to do, so did the picture itself. "Books suggested wisdom, flowers complemented beauty, and a classical column signaled a noble character," Merry writes. "As self-consciousness about posing increased, so did the desire to present the best self for the camera."

ESSAY IDEA

Ask students to imagine that, as in the days of the daguerreotype, they could have just one photograph to represent a family member, a friend, or the self. Assign a brief essay in which they describe this imagined picture by addressing the questions in the first lesson: What is happening? What is the setting? Who took the picture? When was it taken? Why was it taken?

A daguerreotype was treated like a miniature painting. It was set in a brass mat and covered with glass. The owner could keep this object in a case or hang it on a wall in an elaborate frame. Ask students, then, to finish the essay by telling where and how they would display the picture.

Afterwards, in a class discussion, consider if there are similarities between the imagined photographs and daguerreotypes. Do any of the imagined photographs express the personality, interests, or ideal image of the subject? Despite the differences in technology, do real photographs still serve these early purposes?