Early Canadian Daguerreotypes: Brilliant Jewels


Thomas Coffin Doane, Alfred Chalifoux and four boys dressed in historical costume, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, Montreal, Quebec (1855), daguerreotype, image 9.1 x 14 cm. Library and Archives Canada, No. e011154381_s2

When Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote about early photographic processes in an 1859 article in The Atlantic magazine, he referred to the photograph as “a mirror with memory” for its ability to make a sheet of paper reflect an image and hold it. The metaphor applies most aptly, it would seem, to the polished silver surface of the daguerreotype.

Louis Daguerre’s brilliant invention is the focus of Mirrors with Memory: Daguerreotypes from Library and Archives Canada, now on view at the National Gallery. This latest in a series of photography exhibitions drawn from our national archives offers visitors a rare opportunity to learn about a little-known aspect of Canadian photographic history.

Photography was invented in 1839, more or less simultaneously by William Henry Fox Talbot in England and Louis Daguerre in France. While Talbot used a technique that could produce multiple prints on paper, the daguerreotype was a light-sensitive metal plate that both captured the image in the camera and functioned as a final, single-use photograph. The daguerreotype, though cumbersome and not printable, produced images of extraordinary detail, sharp definition, and delicacy of tone.

These exquisite qualities are nicely showcased in the fifteen daguerreotypes featured in Mirrors with Memory. Several, including a famous portrait of Louis-Joseph Papineau, are from the Montreal studio of Thomas Coffin Doane, who established a reputation in the 1840s for his portraits of prominent Canadians. Smaller images by unknown photographers are displayed in their original lockets or pocket-sized cases. A rare example of a contemporary work is the portrait of the late photographer Arnaud Maggs, made by Mike Robinson, the Toronto-based daguerreotypist who is considered Canada’s go-to guy for modern practice of the medium. Also on view are a daguerreotype camera and a video showing the conservation work undertaken in preparation for this exhibition.

Mike Robinson, Dual portrait of Arnaud Maggs (1926–2012) [2002], double-plated daguerreotype, frame: 12.4 x 10.1 x 2.7 cm. Library and Archives Canada, No. e011154477_s1, _s2 ©Mike Robinson

Mirrors with Memory is organized by Jennifer Roger, Archivist and Curator at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). In an interview with NGC Magazine, Roger discussed the LAC photographs collection, and the selection for the exhibition.


NGC Magazine: How many daguerreotypes are in the LAC collection?

Jennifer Roger: The daguerreotype collection includes approximately 265 objects, and consists mainly of portraits. There are some interesting Canadian personalities in there, including Sir John A. Macdonald, Archibald McDonald — chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company — Louis-Joseph Papineau and Maungwudaus, a member of the Anishnaabe Nation, both of whom are included in this exhibition. Most of the portraits in the collection are of regular citizens. The objects date mostly from the 1850s.

Unknown photographer, Maungwudaus, also known as George Henry (c. 1805–after 1877) [c. 1846], daguerreotype, 14 x 10.9 cm. Library and Archives Canada, No. e011154379_s2

NGCM: How did you choose the works for this show?

JR: Overall, we selected what we felt were some of the best examples of the collection’s daguerreotypes, and considered which objects demonstrated the various purposes and formats for which the process was used. We wanted objects that were in good condition, as deterioration is common with this process, and can make viewing difficult if the damage is advanced. We selected images of people we felt had interesting stories, or images that depicted an interesting event in Canadian history. Some are simply visually compelling. The locket was selected because it really conveys how personal daguerreotypes were, how these one-of-a-kind objects were carried, looked at and treasured.

NGCM: Daguerreotypes are generally small and require close, attentive viewing. How do you think visitors can approach this exhibition in order to get the full impact?

JR: You’re absolutely right. They are indeed small, and were placed in protective cases to preserve them not only from environmental factors, but also from the continuous handling that was expected.

Because of this, and largely due to preservation concerns, daguerreotype exhibitions are extremely rare. Library and Archives Canada has carefully treated and preserved these objects so that they will be safe for their viewing period, and we think this is a unique opportunity to see them, and to see portraits and scenes of 19th-century Canada that aren’t widely available or reproduced.


Thomas Coffin Doane, The Molson family brewery after the fire, Montreal, Quebec (1858), daguerreotype 1/2 plate, 10.5 x 13.2 cm. Library and Archives Canada, No. e011154380_s2

To see a daguerreotype in person is a special experience. They are brilliant and jewel-like, and the resolution is unparalleled. You do have to get somewhat close to see the detail, to appreciate the delicate hand-tinted colours of cheeks, lips and fabrics, and the gold of the jewellery. Because these objects were created directly on the plate, there was much discussion at the height of their popularity as to whether or not a little of the sitter’s spirit or aura was captured in the image. It’s interesting to consider how photography was approached and thought about during the years when it was still new.

The daguerreotypes in the exhibition are lit with special lighting, designed to enhance only the object and not the space around it, so they really pop in a darkened room. This helps visitors to see the detail, and to understand the unique make-up of these mirror-like objects.

Visitors can approach the exhibition expecting to experience a glimpse of early Canada, through objects originally intended as personal mementos. The show offers the viewer a look at portraits and outdoor scenes that help to enrich our understanding of our past: who we were, what we thought was important, how we chose to represent ourselves.

NGCM: Which image or object do you find most interesting and why?

JR: It’s hard to choose favourites, as they are all so fantastic. I’m drawn to a few in particular, though. The objects for which we know their story and provenance are always fascinating. I love the portrait known as The Carpenter in Canada. This daguerreotype dates from around 1850, and features a hand-tinted likeness of a man holding a hammer. It belonged to Lord Elgin, Governor-General of British North America from 1847 to 1854, and depicts a man who worked as Elgin’s carpenter while he lived in Quebec City.

Unknown photographer, The Carpenter in Canada (c. 1850), daguerreotype, 8.1 x 7 cm. Library and Archives Canada, No. e011154392_s2

I also love the group portrait of nine men who were merchants, businessmen and civic leaders in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia during the 19th century. Daguerreotype portraits of large groups are not as common, and this object is extra special because it still has an original manuscript, enclosed in the case, that lists the names of the men, the location, and the name of the photographer. This object dates from 1855, and it always amazes me when objects of this age are still in such good condition, considering all the hands that have held them, but also that this little handwritten note was kept safe all these years.

Sometimes the most interesting daguerreotypes are the ones for which we haven’t been able to identify the sitter. I love the mystery behind these faces, behind these beautiful objects that someone kept and treasured for years. These are intimate and personal objects. The fact that we don’t know who some of these people are can sometimes intensify the viewing experience.

Mirrors with Memory: Daguerreotypes from Library and Archives Canada is on view at the National Gallery until February 28, 2016.

About the Author