Sit perfectly still for sixty-five seconds with your eyes open. You blinked. Let’s try it again. And keep those eyes open, please.
Named after the inventor, Louis-Jacque-Mandé Daguerre introduced the first commercial photographic process to the world in 1839. With exposures initially ranging from three to fifteen minutes, the technique created highly detailed images on polished sheets of silver-plated copper. As the light-sensitive chemical process was refined, exposure times eventually fell to less than a minute.
When Samuel F. B. Morse returned from Paris after the unveiling of the daguerreotype, he handed a letter to the New York Observer describing “one of the most beautiful discoveries of the age.” Morse, a painter and inventor of the telegraph and Morse code, called it “Rembrandt perfected.” The new medium dizzied Morse, sending him off to make wildly imaginative claims toward new scientific and artistic applications. For Morse, it was an infallible reproduction of reality. And he marveled in its accuracy:
…this discovery is, therefore, about to open a new field of research in the depths of microscopic Nature. We are soon to see if the minute has discoverable limits. The naturalist is to have a new kingdom to explore, as much beyond the microscope as the microscope is beyond the naked eye.
Morse was confident that within these reproductions lay a seemingly infinite amount of detail captured. His idea was that under a microscope, scientists could peer into the “discoverable limits” of nature. Though the daguerreotype ultimately fell short of achieving such uses, his enthusiasm for the invention was emblematic of finding truth and beauty in accuracy. With its invention, one could now revel in the permanence of what we’ve come to know as a photograph, an undeniable artifact of time itself.
As the nineteenth century marched towards market society, urbanized Americans were no longer able to form identities grounded solely in family, community or occupation. Close-knit small towns were being deserted, and with it, the ease of identifying one another. Cities full of strangers filled the streets, and identity was sought after and defined by physical appearance. The daguerreotype became the new arbiter of human reality. As a document of truth, it prevented the misrepresentation of physical attributes.
Portraits painted by humans were prone to injections of flattery. But now, the sun and its light cast onto the subject became an impartial creator. In an 1841 journal entry, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:
The Daguerreotype is good for its authenticity. No man quarrels with his shadow, nor will he with his miniature when the sun was the painter. Here is no interference, and the distortions are not blunders of an artist, but only those of motion, imperfect light, and the like.
“Sun-pictures” is how the Knickerbocker magazine came to describe a daguerreotypist’s work in an 1853 article on the advent of such mirror-like portraiture. The piece notes:
And if you observe closely the persons who depart with their portraits, you will perceive that, for the most part, they do not look pleased; the plain moral of which is, that the daguerreotype does not flatter, and it is hard to have to put up with the plain, wholesome, bitter, unadulterated Truth.
Shuffling now to present day, and surely to the delight of Samuel Morse’s prophetic ranting, we are endowed with technology that allows for the nearly infinite scrutiny of nature. Digital cameras are capable of capturing incredible detail measured in millions of pixels. In both still and moving formats, multi-lensed devices are able to reconstruct scenes in 3-dimensional space. Focus, depth, and even light fall prey to adjustment. And still, given such miraculous tools with which to create the most accurate representations of reality ever known, society has tumbled back like an erratic painter holding a wet brush, deliberately choosing to modify the truth.
We erase unsightly telephone poles. We enhance inherently dramatic skies with absurd levels of saturation. We nip and tuck rolls of skin and airbrush out minor details deemed imperfections or flaws. Through these acts of complete deception, our understanding of reality is tossed about like a cat’s string toy.
The Truth, is in large part, a concept we choose to accept or deny. When the explosion of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate shattered the city of Beirut on August 4th, 2020, the world was presented with dozens of angles, captured on smartphones and CCTV, and published instantaneously following the blast. This digital panopticon provides the means to study an event with depth and completeness, documenting a precise account of reality.
Without question, there is a place in photography for a genre of manipulated imagery. But in tragedy and through life’s most severe range of experiences, we should seek to preserve and hold in the highest regard images presenting us with unadulterated accuracy. The video of a grandmother playing piano amid the wreckage of her damaged Beirut apartment needs no enhancement. And the song she so forlornly plays, “Auld Lang Syne,” its literal meaning “old long since,” or more simply, “the olden days,” evokes a nostalgic hope where unerring truth rules above all.