Lithographer, draftsman, theatre decorator, painter, entrepreneur, scientist: these are just some of the many labels that Louis Daguerre (1787–1851) has invited and eluded. For most readers today, Daguerre will be remembered primarily as the father of the daguerreotype, which was unveiled to the French Academy of Sciences with great fanfare in 1839. Yet as Stephen Pinson’s spirited book suggests, there is much to be gained in liberating Daguerre from the prehistory of photography. He is uninterested in who got there first with the photographic process – Fox Talbot, Niépce or Daguerre – or in retracing a lineage of technical breakthroughs. Rather, he modestly situates Daguerre and his restless, multi-media experiments within the wider spectrum of nineteenth-century visual culture. And the results are very refreshing.
Pinson relishes the strange byways and unexpected detours in the development of optical experimentation from the end of the eighteenth century. Whether the transparencies devised for aristocratic gardens, the Claude mirrors endorsed by landscape painters, the physics cabinet set up in the Louvre, or the shimmering sets at the Opéra: