A Collector's Guide to Color and Tinting in Daguerreotypes

This short article is intended as a primer on the subject of color tinting applied to the surface of a daguerreotype (the earliest photographic process made on a light-sensitive silver-coated metallic plate with a mirror-like appearance). This summary contains much personal opinion and is a work in progress.

The first ''color photographs''

The Hand tinting of daguerreotypes was the first effort to impart life-like color to photographic portraits. Efforts at tinting began in the early 1840s, after the durability and image contrast of the daguerreotype was enhanced by adding a wash in gold chloride solution as a final stage in the chemical process. (The atoms of gold were also welcome for adding richer tonality.) The improved hardness made it more feasible for the still delicate images to accept color pigments -- in the form of liquid paint or an adhesive powder -- applied by precise brushwork. Some of those artists tinting the daguerreotypes surfaces were applying a skill learned in the creation of painted miniatures on ivory in the 1820s and 1830s, the "perfect likenesses" of the era before daguerreotypes.

Whether a survey of early photography, or focused on particular content or a theme, every photography collection should include at least one fine example of the tinted daguerreotype. These vivid images are coming on to the market less and less as ''fresh finds" out of estates. Even in the vast marketplace of eBay, worthwhile examples are few and far between. Ever rarer are meritorious plates with intact tinting and neither unduly blemished by the spotting of age (tarnish, corrosion, or silicate spiders), nor diminished by chemical cleaning or physical wipes (''the hand of guilty man,'' as one venerable dealer described it to me). Stellar examples tend not to circulate, as connoisseurs often hold them tightly in their collections; and those many cherry-picked by Museums in recent years will, of course, will never again be available.

The categories of color pigment applied to the surface of daguerreotypes

Some accent colors are commonly encountered. More extensive tinting is uncommon to rare in fine condition.

Ordinary accent tinting: transparent pink applied to lips and cheeks. Common from mid 1840s to end of daguerreian era. Not worth paying a premium. (Occasionally a a detriment when the tinting has changed color or become opaque, which can happen as a result of oxidation or chemical cleaning.)

Accent tinting: dabs of metallic color on jewelry and buttons. Jewelry accent tinting in gold is common; much more rarely one sees silver oil paint applied. (the latter not to be confused with pin-pricking of the silver surface). Metallic paint is occasionally annoying when crudely applied, or when the opaque gold color obscures jewelry detail such as buttons; in military subjects the paint can conceal identifying information.

Accent tinting: dabs of opaque color on flowers. Can be very desirable, as when the experience of a multicolor zesty summer bouquet from long ago is conveyed to the viewer. Sometimes present on flours held by or surrounding a deceased person. Opaque has more Folk Style than transparent.

Flute player with brown hair

Area tinting, transparent color wash: suggesting natural flesh tones or hair color. Can be exquisitely subtle as ivory flesh tones or more obvious as a glowing tan. While not rare, the better examples of lively skin tones are much cherished by long time collectors. Transparent chestnut or Irish-red to the hair is more uncommon and quite desirable.

Area tinting, transparent color wash: small areas. Color applied to brighten a ribbon, or tie or a bit of curtain or tablecloth. Fairly common from late 1840s onward. Can add a cheerful high note to an ordinary portrait. Tablecloths often given one or two colors; more rarely curtains. Leaves or flowers are sometimes accented with transparent color, usually amounting to a small accent. More rarely, blue color is given to the sky in painted backdrops -- though painted skies are a regular feature of the daguerreotypes of Beard in London. Much more rarely, sunset tones are given to the sky; there is a famous example by Southworth & Hawes in the Isenburg collection.

Child in Bright Red Dress Held by Mother

Area tinting, transparent color wash. Full garment tinting. Much enlivening a portrait; such as a pink dress or blue vest. Involving an extensive percentage of the plate, becoming a dominant characteristic of the portrait. Can be very desirable, and quite hard to find without compromising tarnish spots. More rarely seen in male subjects; occasionally a fully vest. Key point of evaluation: How careful is the tinting? Does it align with the outline of the clothing or is it clumsy? I recall Matthew Isenburg commenting on how tinting quality of the well known and prolific Anson studio of New York was highly variable; a number of different tinters employed, with varying skills. I think there can be exceptions to the rule of technical quality: naive, Folk Style portraits may not suffer much from a certain brashness in coloring technique, since realism (verisimilitude) is not the point of that type of photographic artistry.

Girl in a Plaid Dress

Multicolor tinting: Harmonious and memorable combinations. Intricate patterns with two colors are certainly desirable, as one might find in the plaid dress of a lady or child. Three or more colors can make a daguerreotype more interesting and more valuable, but keep in mind that sad condition or poor technique can cancel out the advantage of two or more colors. Sometimes in a patterned article of clothing (such as a paisley shawl), one color alternates with uncolored areas , creating the illusion of two applied colors, which when ingenious is very nice.

Multicolor tinting: bold combinations. Two major garments in distinct colors, quite rare, can be startling, even outrageous and in debatable taste. But I think some bold examples can be enjoyed for their Folk Style naivete. I recall one example where three colors screamed crudely on a boy's Scottish tunic; a note attached said that he died shortly thereafter. Did he succumb to over-tinting? Yet that image fetched a premium price, and I had been tempted to buy it. It really is a matter of personal taste. One collector's horror might be another collector's triumph of zany folk art power.

Studios famous for hand-tinting

The New York studios in particular: Jeremiah Gurney on Broadway, Charles Williamson in Brooklyn, and Rufus Anson to name just three. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. The studio of Abraham Bogardus is somewhat unsung, can also be credited with excellence. And, most top notch American daguerreotypes are today anonymous, bearing no studio marking. Highly desirable also are unmolested examples of the tinted French stereo nude; their raciness persuaded the makers to remain deliberately unidentified, unlike many French daguerreotypes. And it worth pointing out that the great photographic studio of Southworth & Hawes sometimes indulged in a gorgeous applied palette, while at other times refrained completely, according to what the artists deemed suitable for the subject, or as suited the pocketbook of the client. In those august premises -- and in the rooms of the speediest volume operator -- the application of color tinting cost the patron a premium.

Chemical cleaning: The enemy of color

When Tarnex (thiorea), ammonia, or cyanide are used to remove tarnish, the delicately applied tinting typically disappears in the wash, along with the tarnish. Course gold paint accents may prove more durable, but they are usually less desirable in the first place. The polar opposite of an engagingly tinted daguerreotype is a wan, drained example that experienced the trauma of a harsh chemical bath. In a shift from harsh cleaning practices prevalent in the 1950s to 1980s, today's generation of collectors often develop an aversion to daguerreotypes that are oddly light in tone and suspiciously free of any tarnish.

Tinted French Stereo Nude

Experience teaches many collectors to accept the occasional spot in the interior of a plate and avoid making a fetish out of superficial perfection. Sometimes color does survive a chemical bath; other times an undercoating, sickly yellowish is color remains on the plate (I recall being offered a dag of a sailor with a buff-yellow shirt, the color of which was probably blue before ill-advised intervention). It is a sad truth that many great daguerreotypes were stripped of their highly artistic tinting. Alas that is especially true of the decorative nude stereo daguerreotypes created in France from 1845 to 1860 -- an important chapter in early photography. It is therefore a delight to find an example in nearly pristine condition, such as this ''Girl with Tambourine,'' formerly in the Uwe Scheid and Paul Benarroche collections.

The Tarnish Halo: "The Tinting of Time"

Fireman in a Tinted Cape

Tarnish, though not part of the original creation, over time becomes wedded to the image. Like the patina of age on the surface of bronze sculpture or antique furniture, it can become part of the artistic whole: Rings of Violet-Purple-Pink-Gold with an iridescent cast. As I became familiar with a wide range of daguerreotypes, and grew tired of the spic-n-span look , I joined the ranks of those who are distinctly fond of the tinting bestowed by the natural oxidation of silver in the course of time -- as long as it does not range over the entire plate or obscure important detail. Here is my favorite example. Note how the rich palette of tarnish rhymes (serendipitously) with the tinting on the fireman's hat and cape. The interaction of these subtle color effects would have been lost if chemical cleaning had assaulted the plate.

Inherent Color

Apart from color occurring on the surface of the daguerreotype (as the result of hand-applied tinting or from oxidation), color can reside inside the structure of the image.

New York Skyline by Jerry Spagnoli

Inherent color; solarization. Bright whites can record as blue in what is referred to as 'solarization'. Frequently stunning examples of this are images by contemporary daguerreotypist Jerry Spagnoli, where clouds, sky, and sometimes the sun itself, appear a deep, vibrant blue. Slightly paler but still bright sky and water areas can also record in lovely warm, golden tawny tones; even occasionally iridescent and pinkish.

Inherent color: natural color. More rare, esoteric, though highly prized, is the recording of something approaching colors from nature, (without assistance from the hand tinter after development of the image). As a result as specialized variation, in the chemistry, such as the Hillotype devised by Levi Hill. (His process detailed in ''A Treatise on Heliography; or the Production of Pictures, by Means of Light, in Natural Colors''.) Occasionally verdant foliage takes on a green hue (e.g. in some daguerreotypes by the great Baron Gros in France). In theory some daguerreotypes that we now ponder were given inherent color by use of a galvanic battery in the developing solution; sometimes with gold in the solution, sometimes other elements, such as copper. The methodologies are covered in some patents, but the link between these patents and the practical result in the plates we ponder today is not well understood. Inherent color is discussed in the classic volume "The American Daguerreotype," by Floyd and Marion Rinhart; they devote numerous pages to Levi Hill's color daguerreotypes.

Subtle Inherent color effects. Occasionally, and not especially rare are differing hues in the range of browns and bronze tones, to a near green. For examples, differing textures in the garb of the same portrait subject may record differently, but not necessarily mimicking life and not nearly as conspicuous as hand-tinting on the surface. Such pleasing variations in hue or tonality are not especially rare. The variation is inherent to the hard structure of the image of a daguerreotype at the microscopic level; the result of the the chemical methods and formulas of specific studios -- the practical details of which were proprietary secrets at the time and may never be known.


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