Two years late, I just saw the trailer for Daguerrotype, a horror movie directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (yes, the movie title purposely has a different spelling). In it, a young man becomes the assistant of a photographer obsessed with the early photographic process, and discovers there is more to the life-sized portraits than meets the eye.
Daguerreotypes are widely acknowledged to be the first successful photographic process. Successful experiments in fixing images by use of light sensitive materials are known before the daguerreotype, but Louis J.M. Daguerre’s invention took the world by storm. He released the specifics of how to create daguerreotype images in 1839, after reaching an agreement with the French government for a lifetime monthly pension.
Unlike paper photographic prints that we are most familiar with, daguerreotypes are images on metal. A sliver-coated copper plate is polished to a mirror-like shine before its exposure to iodine and bromine gas to create a light sensitive surface. After the plate has been exposed in the camera, it is then exposed to heated mercury, the fumes of which reveal the image that has been exposed.
If you’ve never seen a daguerreotype, it’s hard to describe the effect of looking at one, and no reproduction can do it justice. Oliver Wendell Holmes called daguerreotypes “the mirror with a memory.” Looking at a daguerreotype is like looking in a mirror, with another image as interloper. Depending on how you hold the plate, you can see the image in positive, in negative, or not at all. In the process of moving the plate into just the right light that reveals the subject, you also see your own reflection.
Seated Young Woman with Hand Raised to Jawline,
Daguerreotypes have an inherent clarity that is maybe yet unmatched by the highest resolution digital camera. They reproduce the smallest detail. Even to a modern viewer, daguerreotypes have an aura of otherworldliness that is not inherent to other photographic mediums.
The mysterious characteristics of photography often lend themselves to the development of spooky plots, and always have. The process publication and subsequent explosion of daguerreotype studios in particular seem to have spurred the imagination of 19th-century writers as they tried to make sense of the narrative and mimetic possibilities of the new invention.
In her essay “‘The Inconstant Daguerreotype’: The Narrative of Early Photography,” Susan Williams notes the ways that nineteenth-century authors deployed daguerreotypes in inventive narrative ways. One popular story type was the image as surrogate for a person. In other words, a character falls in love with an image of a person they have not met. The image accompanies the person on exciting and dangerous adventures that the person photographed is not even aware of. Another trope was someone falling in love with the image rather than the person.
Daguerreotypist-as-mad-scientist was another common theme, which seems to be the starting point of this film. In nineteenth-century stories, people who became obsessed with creating daguerreotypes, eschewing all social life to spend time alone in their lab, often lost all ties to society and went mad.
And in some stories the images recorded in daguerreotypes themselves had agency to interact, drive a story, or even fall in love with another image.
Photographs, particularly daguerreotypes, are objects that bring the past into the present in a very tangible way, the perfect visual metaphor to tell the story of a spirit of the past inhabiting the present.
No spoilers if you’ve seen the movie!