The first photographic image of a human being was captured in 1839, when at about 8 a.m. one fine Spring day, photographic pioneer Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre sat up his camera in the window of the Diorama in Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd arrondissement, for an exposure that lasted up to 12 minutes. Although the street was crowded with both persons and horse-drawn traffic, none of them remained still long enough to register save for one man on a corner to whom a bootblack attended. We will never know who he was, but this 19th Century Frenchman holds a special place in mankind’s history.
In the 21st Century, we possess both still and moving images of our family and friends, but in the 1830s faces of loved ones could be preserved only by personal memory, sculpture, portraits, caricatures, or silhouettes. The vast majority of people were born and died leaving no visual legacy. This quote from Henry Fitz, Sr., captures the enthusiasm that resulted from the release of the daguerreotype process by the French government as a gift to the world 19 August, 1839: “Here is a similitude of heavenly origin! Of a wonderful power! A supernatural (so far as man’s agency is concerned,) agent! An effect produced by the light of heaven; absolutely creating man’s perfect image and identity [emphasis mine].” (The Layman’s Legacy, Volume II, 1840.)
Millions of daguerreotypes—the vast majority of them portraits—were created in the heyday of the art. Of those, it has been estimated that several hundred thousand survive. In A Curious & Ingenious Art: Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard, author Melissa Banta explains, “Like painters of miniature portraits, they adopted the convention of placing a decorative mat and a sheet of glass over the plate. They used thin paper tapes to hold the assemblage together and to protect the image from shifting. Sometimes they enveloped the entire packet in an ornate metal rim, known as a preserver. This tiny composite fit snugly into a velvet- or satin-lined case made of leather, wood, or thermoplastic, or into a frame. Such decorative touches lent the daguerreotype much of its intimacy and charm. Fortuitously, these same elements protected the plate from its worst enemies: abrasion, airborne contaminants, and corrosive substances.”
Despite the care in their making, countless daguerreotypes succumbed to attempts to clean ills that become acute over time, including “surface dust, white or beige mold spiders, silver tarnish, blue or brown spots and areas of scum deposits that were caused when the older glass leached out some of its impurities onto the surface,” notes experienced restorer Casey A. Waters of Fine Daguerreotypes & Photography. “Less common elements are daguerreian measles (tiny black dots sometimes visible through an 8x loup), a white or bluish haze (but not tarnish), residue from wax on the copper side of the plate, and exfoliation of or bubbles in the silver layer.”
There is another reason that many of these precious historical relics are now lost: Their inheritors tipped them in the rubbish bin. We see the same phenomenon today—grandchildren or other distant relatives hurry through possessions after a kindred’s death, keeping only what appears valuable at that moment. Unidentified images of people who mean nothing to the inheritors are discarded.
The daguerreotype at the top of this article was mercifully saved from oblivion and now resides in the James Morley Collection. “I bought this for 6d. at a Rummage Sale at Ealing Broadway Methodist Church. It was thrown out by Mrs J. W. Allcock. 37 Hillcroft Crescent. Ealing W5. Spring 1937,” wrote Thomas Ernest Inwood (b. 1871) on a slip of paper inside the daguerreotype’s case. James Morley ascertained that Inwood lived at 8 North Common Road, Ealing, in 1937, when he spent his 6d. on this portrait of an unknown adolescent, seeing in it what others could not. “This is a Daguerreotype Portrait. About 1845. These photos were taken between 1842-1857. The Chief Librarian at the Victoria & Albert Museum said it was a splendid specimen & well worth retaining. Centenary of Photography 1839-1939. 12 January, 1939.”
The Allcock family lived at 37 Hillcroft Crescent, Ealing, in 1937, headed by John William Allcock, and including his wife Mabel, née Hewson, and daughter Ruth. John Allcock was a Wesleyan Methodist Minister, born in Litchurch, Derbyshire, in 1870 to railway messenger William Allcock (1828-1903) and his wife Sarah Naylor Gott (1839-1919). If the daguerreotype’s young subject is an Allcock, he was from William’s generation. Ω