THE PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF CANADA

History in the Making -
Contemporary Daguerreotypes by Mike Robinson

PHSC President Mike Robinson's exhibition and talk on a 165 year old process

Mike Robinson by Robert Lansdale

Mike Robinson is widely recognized as one of the few accomplished modern practitioners of the daguerreotype. His images are distinctive, with a tonality and style that evoke the past while his subjects clearly reflect the present. The ability of the daguerreotype medium to intimately engage the viewer as both image and object is seen anew in these portraits, landscapes, and still life images.

Mr. Robinson operates the Century Darkroom in Toronto as well as teaching at Ryerson University. He is the current (2004) president of the PHSC.


Our meeting this month took us off-site to the Ryerson Gallery situated in an old recycled factory loft on Spadina just above Kings Street in downtown Toronto. Mike teaches at Ryerson as well as operating 'Century Darkroom' the studio were he creates his images and periodically teaches the daguerreotype process. Mike began his photographic career as a fine art photographer using traditional B&W techniques. From this beginning, he worked his way back through the historical processes to albumen prints, then to the wet collodion media and finally in 1999 to daguerreotypes using the original c1839 process.

We gathered before 8:00 pm and had time to browse the exhibition before Mike introduced the images and their stories. The images were displayed in groups using specially designed cabinets on loan from the Daguerreian Society. The cabinets used indirect fluorescent illumination and a dark reflecting surface to display the images in all their beauty. The daguerreotypes were grouped by theme clockwise around the gallery beginning at the entrance.

Daguerreian Society Display Case
mid-wife

Occupational Portraits. Traditional daguerreotypes in the vernacular style. The images are intentionally anonymous with each one portraying an individual and a tool or other object signifying the trade of the unknown worker.

family portraits

Artistic Style. A series half plate portraits including those of Mike and his family (his daughter has her own small head stand, but she is much too active at this stage to pose).

philosophical instruments

Philosophical Instruments. Still life shots of scientific and philosophical instruments of the mid 1800s continue the artistic style. The images on display are the second best shots of each subject. The originals are part of the Hallmark Cards fine art collection in St. Louis. In 2001, the Daguerreian Society annual symposium was held in Kansas City. Included in the program was the exhibit, "Mirror with a Memory: The American Daguerreotype" at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art curated by Keith Davis, Fine Art Programs Director, Hallmark Cards, Inc. (Hallmark has thousands of daguerreotypes in its image collection which is used for research.)

stereo daguerreotype

Stereo Daguerreotype. This single image was specially illuminated and mounted in a reproduction of a c1853 Mascher folding stereoscopic viewer case. The stereo image was a still life of laboratory glassware. Mike created both the left and right images directly on the daguerreotype plate. This was complicated by the fact that a stereo image consists of two views of the subject from slightly different angles with the images transposed. To accomplish this Mike carefully positioned the plate half inserted in his camera to record the first image. He repositioned the plate with the unexposed half in the other side of the camera to perform the transition. Moving the camera laterally a few inches before the second exposure took care of the shift in viewing angle.

blue solarization
using 'quick-stuff' to shorten needed exposure
testing a 'stale' sensitized plate

Test Shots. With a slow process and many variables, it was necessary for the daguerreotypist to take test shots to check light, chemistry, camera settings, etc. Exhibited were test images taken at a variety of locales where Mike taught the process.
Solarization. An interior shot shows the blue colour created on a daguerreotype by extreme over-exposure or over-development which shifts the white highlights to a mid blue. This defect is used today to create unusual daguerreotypes but in the 19th century it was the mark of an incompetent photographer and numerous schemes were used to moderate the dynamic range of a scene so shadow detail could be captured without turning the highlights blue.
Acceleration. Another plate was used to test new "quick-stuff" (using silica-gel as an alkali in place of sodium carbonate to accelerate the chemical process).
Stale Plates. A third plate tested the sensitivity and image quality of an ‘old' plate. For best results, the plates were sensitized, exposed and processed the same day. As sensitized plates age, the bromide fades and iodine concentrates in tiny ‘donuts' around dust specks. Mike took an two week old sensitized plate and placed it in a refreshing process before exposing it.
Long exposure. The daguerreotypist needs to check for correct long exposure time. At the busy Arun Carter Center in Texas, Mike set up a tripod and used an antique lens (about f/32 max). The center came out sharp and correctly exposed after the 45 minute shot - but not a soul shows on the plate in spite of the gallery being full of people that day.

cold weather advantage
fast water at Niagara

Landscapes. Daguerreotypes must be processed as soon as possible after exposure. The latent image begins fading after exposure and delayed processing results in poorly exposed images.
Cold Weather. Mike took advantage of the cold weather which slows the chemical process to take winter landscapes and process them later at home.
Portable Darkroom. On a trip to Savannah in November 2003 to attend a Daguerreian Society symposium, Mike drove down in his ‘mobile daguerreotype studio'. This set-up allowed him to take and process daguerreotype images during the trip and symposium.
Fast Water. A daylight image taken at Niagara shows the blur of water over the falls. Even using a modern fast Rodenstock lens and reversing prism, the exposure was two seconds at f/4.5
Clouds. Mike noted that few daguerreotypes show clouds since the exposure is so slow. He took one successful image of clouds on the Savannah trip. Spotting an interesting formation, Mike pulled over, set up his camera with an f/3.3 Voigtlander portrait lens and used his lens cap for roughly a one second exposure. The result was a wonderfully detailled image of clouds.

still life with clean whites

Clean Whites. The last group of images featured examples from Mike's 2002 flower series using amongst other containers, white porcelain jugs. The challenge was to get good detail and clean whites in the jugs.


Mike uses the traditional process. Silver clad plates are sensitized with iodine and bromine to make the sensitive silver halides. The exposed plates are developed in mercury fumes and the delicate images are gilded for protection. The daguerreotype image sits on the surface of the plate and is very fragile - it can literally be wiped off with the lightest brush of a finger. To protect the delicate image, the exposed and developed daguerreotype is gilded by exposure to a gold chloride solution. This bonds the surface of the plate, brightens the whites, and darkens the black tones resulting in a more permanent image with a better dynamic range. Colour in the form of dry powder pigments can be added to a gilded image with a soft brush. The colour is bonded to the surface by a gentle gust of moist breathe from the photographer.

hand coloured daguerreotype

Bromine and mercury are very dangerous chemicals. Other modern dagerreotypists use a safer process proposed in the 1840s by Becqueral This process uses only iodine as a sensitizing chemical, eliminating the more dangerous bromine and forfeiting considerable sensitivity which means much longer exposures. To avoid the need for deadly mercury fumes, the latent image is ‘developed' by a variation of the paper printing-out process. The sensitized silver-plate is most sensitive to blue/ultraviolet light. After a suitable exposure, the plate is covered with a deep red filter and exposed to sunlight. Where the silver halides have begun breaking into metallic silver and iodine ions, weak energy from the red light continues the process breaking down the nearby silver halides (the red light is too weak to precipitate the decomposition of previously unexposed silver halides).

While the Becqueral process is much safer to use, it results in a contrastier image with a somewhat different colour tone than the mercury developed plate. Mike estimated that omitting bromine and using the printing-out development makes the process about 60x less sensitive than the original process.

Mike works with silver-clad plates the same as practitioners used 165 years ago. The available widths limit him to quarter and half plate images. The silver-clad plates take a very fine polish and produce better quality images. The alternative use of copper plates electroplated with silver, results in a poorer quality image. The silver coating is more porous leading to surface defects that affect the image. The electroplated material is also more prone to solarization.

In discussing the risks involved, Mike noted that he uses a closed development pot of his own design to avoid the release of fumes. The pot holds 60 millilitres of mercury. It still has the same amount of mercury after processing thousands of image since the mercury is a catalyst and not consumed by the process. Nevertheless, when working with either the mercury or the bromine, Mike does so under a properly vented fume hood.

For more information, you can attend a one day workshop at Century Darkroom in which you take and develop a traditional daguerreotype. Collectors and practitioners may also join the Daguerreian Society to share information, publish findings, and swap images.


All images were taken with a Nikon Coolpix 990 digital camera and adjusted in Photoshop CS. The images are © 2004 Mike Robinson unless otherwise noted. Digital technology (and my skill) doesn't show the beauty, detail, and sharpness inherent in the Daguerreotype image. Many of the images in the show were on loan from individuals and collections. The content of the presentation is © 2004 Mike Robinson.

This exhibition and presentation gave us the chance to see photography through the eyes of the pioneer practitioners of some 165 years ago, when the world was thrilled and astounded by a presentation to the French Academy of Sciences on January 7th, 1839 by Arago on behalf of Louis Dageurre. Questions? Please contact me at info@phsc.ca.

Robert Carter

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