Speculating Daguerre

Art and Enterprise in the Work of L. J. M. Daguerre

Stephen C. Pinson

Speculating Daguerre

Stephen C. Pinson

424 pages | 36 color plates, 103 halftones | 8-1/2 x 11 | © 2011
Cloth $75.00 ISBN: 9780226669113 Published April 2012

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851) was a true nineteenth-century visionary—a painter, printmaker, set designer, entrepreneur, inventor, and pioneer of photography. Though he was widely celebrated beyond his own lifetime for his invention of the daguerreotype, it was his origins as a theatrical designer and purveyor of visual entertainment that paved the way for Daguerre’s emergence as one of the world’s most iconic imagemakers.

In Speculating Daguerre, Stephen C. Pinson reinterprets the story of the man and his time, painting a vivid picture of Daguerre as an innovative artist and savvy impresario whose eventual fame as a photographer eclipsed everything that had come before. Drawing upon previously unpublished correspondence and unplumbed archival sources, Pinson mixes biography with an incisive study of Daguerre’s wide-ranging involvement in visual culture. From his work as a commercial lithographer to his coinvention of the Paris Diorama—a theater in the round in which Daguerre employed natural light and special effects to simulate time and movement in large-scale paintings—here we are given access to Daguerre the artist, whose tireless experimentation, entrepreneurial spirit, and exceptional talent for popular spectacle helped to usher in a new visual age.

Filled with more than one hundred illustrations and including the first complete catalogue of Daguerre’s paintings, works on paper, and daguerreotypes to appear in print, the publication of Speculating Daguerre will be a much-heralded event for anyone with even a passing interest in one of the most fascinating characters in the history of photography.


Chapter 1. The Reign of Speculation 
    Operatic Enterprises 
    The Panorama Effect 

Chapter 2. Optical Naturalism 
    Theatrical Landscapes 
    The Museum as Laboratory 
    Nature’s Palette: Fixed and Modifiable Views 

Chapter 3. An Artist’s “Fortune” 

Chapter 4. Speculating Daguerre 
    A Catalogue of Works Attributed to Daguerre 
    Works on Paper 

Appendix 1: Daguerre’s Addresses in Paris 
Appendix 2: Chronology 
Appendix 3: A Primer on the Early History of Photography 

Review Quotes
Roger Taylor, De Montfort University, Leicester
“The breadth and scope of Pinson’s scholarship, as well as the extraordinary range of research undertaken, is deeply impressive. By setting Daguerre’s work as a painter and designer in the Parisian theatre and demonstrating how this led to his central involvement with the Diorama, Pinson describes a visual sensibility and culture that is normally overlooked by photographic historians. This book successfully erodes the mythology surrounding Daguerre and Talbot that has been the mainstay of popular photographic history and for the first time draws the two men closer together in awareness, ambition, and achievement than has previously been acknowledged. Speculating Daguerre is an entirely original, informative, and valuable contribution to the history of photography, where it will appeal to a wide variety of audiences.”
Sarah Greenough, Senior Curator of Photographs, National Gallery of Art

“With clarity, concision, and verve, Stephen Pinson has told the fascinating story of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre—artist, illustrator, inventor of photography, and showman extraordinaire. By situating Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype within the broader tradition of the speculative arts, Pinson significantly revises our understanding of both the origins of photography and the rich visual culture of nineteenth-century France.”

Joel Snyder, University of Chicago

Speculating Daguerre is exceptional—there is simply nothing like it in the literature of photography or of nineteenth-century French art history. It is not a biography of Daguerre, but rather a detailed examination of his artistic output, of his endlessly inventive methods, of his hunger for status, recognition, and monetary success, all set into the context of the crosscurrents of art theory and art criticism of the time. Pinson’s treatment of the daguerreotype calls into question the historian’s division of painting from early photography and will most certainly force a reexamination of that separation by media theorists and historians and critics of visual culture. A stunning, convincing, and entirely novel examination of Daguerre’s work as an artist and inventor.”

Literary Review
“Stephen C. Pinson’s meticulous, sumptuous book helps us appreciate the diversity and fragility of Daguerre’s manifold achievements.”
“Pinson offers a new, insightful perspective on the origins of photography. In this extensively researched catalogue, the author argues that Daguerre’s place in the history of photography has eclipsed his contribution to the speculative arts in the 19th century. . . . Using a wealth of original sources, Pinson shows how Daguerre’s inventions in reproducing light effects in the popuar and visual arts contributed to the development of photography.”
Washington Print Club Quarterly
 “Speculating Daguerre . . . for the first time explores in depth the relationship between Daguerre’s career as an artist and a businessman, and his scientific investigations. . . . Richly researched and densely written, [Pinson] demonstrates that Daguerre was primarily concerned with being seen and accepted as an artist.”
Royal Photographic Society Journal
 “Stephen Pinson approaches his subject with the expert touch of a curator handling an eponymous Daguerrotype plate, tilting the image of Daguerre from one of milky opaqueness to one of sudden, sharply defined relief. Speculating Daguerre is a remarkable book rooted in a decade of exhaustive research. . . . [It] transcends conjecture to provide an authoritative and essential new addition to the literature of early photography and emerge as the key contemporary reference to the work of Daguerre.”
caa reviews
 “Pinson provides a unified and compelling reading of a career that has too often been reduced to a succession of unconnected, if not incomprehensible, failures and triumphs. This result is obtained by means of serious archival research; a rich contextualization of the man and the artist via Daguerre’s visual, commercial, and political culture; and sensitivity to Daguerre’s complex artistic aspirations. The reinterpretation is welcome in that it substantiates the diffuse perception of Daguerre as an ‘American in Paris.’”
Early Popular Visual Culture
 “The rigorously researched and elegantly produced project by New York Public Library curator of photography, Stephen Pinson, attempts nothing less than a complete reexamination and rehabilitation of Daguerre’s expansive contributions to the visual arts.”
Technology and Culture
“The book’s strength lies in Pinson’s manipulation of a certain backward-looking perspective. He resists Daguerre’s career to a pre-chapter to photography, even while profiting from the medium’s inescapable pull. After all, the study’s ultimate appeal depends on the fact that most readers will only find Daguerre’s painting and set designs interesting because he subsequently invented photography. Over 150 black-and-white figures, thirty-six color plates, and extensive annexes, which include the most complete catalog of Daguerre’s work, make Speculating Daguerre as beautiful as it is excellent. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of image-making or the problem of balancing the past’s complexity with the interests and arguments that shape present views of it.”
Photography & Culture
“What Pinson has uncovered will profoundly alter the way we understand photography’s origin story. . . . Whatever ‘traditional art history’ was a quarter of a century ago no longer exists; the kind of comprehensive art history practiced by scholars like Pinson today has a great deal to contribute to our appreciation of the photograph. Let us hope it might serve as a light to help lead photo history out of the fog of superannuated and reductive theory.”
H-France Review
“Pinson has written a masterful account of his research into the life and work of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. Although known now almost exclusively for his invention of the daguerreotype, Daguerre did much more. Pinson not only rehabilitates his poor artistic reputation, established during the scholarly battle over claims to the ‘invention’ of photography, he also shows us an early nineteenth-century France eager to embrace visual ingenuity and spectacle. . . . Greatly enhances our appreciation of nineteenth-century culture and artistic production.”
Nineteenth-Century French Studies
“The title of the work, a play on the French terms spéculation, spéculaire, and spéculateur, conveys the richness of Pinson’s study—detailed histories of late-eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century theatrical decorations, popular spectacles and optical devices, and the economic and state regulations governing such enterprises—and it also hints at the tome’s wealth of illustrations, ranging from architectural plans for the Diorama to sketches and lithographs of stage decorations, and culminating in a catalogue of works attributed to Daguerre.”

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