The First Photographs (Circa 1839-1858)
daguerreotype camera
Camera credit: The Kodak Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford

In 1839 the world changed. A Frenchman, Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), created some hazy images of Parisian streets. He did this using natural light, chemicals, glass, and silver-coated copper plates. Reality could now be captured by a mechanical means that seemed to freeze space and time. Each image was unique, could never be reproduced, and had to be encased in a specially designed folding case for its protection. This expensive new medium was used primarily for making portraits. Daguerreotype photography may have been practiced in California even before the Gold Rush.

Within a decade of its invention, photography had spread to the Americas and the Pacific. In the rapidly-growing state of California, photography’s popularity soared and had come to stay. Among the many adventurers moving to the state were a number of early photographers who quickly put their skills to use.

Daguerreotype of sketch of Louis Daguerre
Illustration of a daguerreotypist working with a subject, credit to National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Taber Photographic Parlor image
The earliest daguerreotypes were very expensive – usually around $5.00, or approximately $164.00 today. Luxurious studios might feature props for subjects, like books and flowers, while galleries were decorated with sitting-room furniture and velvet curtains. By the 1850s, some daguerreotypists were practicing their craft on the road using mobile studios.
Black and white photo of outside of a daguerreotype studio, Credit: Gift of W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg
Credit: Gift of W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg