Before Louis Daguerre became known for his daguerreotype, he was already making a name with his diorama, which interestingly, changed photography and cinema altogether. So why didn’t Daguerre name his first invention after him?
What Is The Diorama?
Louis Daguerre, who was trained in panoramic painting and architecture, developed an interest in the theater arts. His desire to capture images through the camera obscura prompted him to invent the diorama.
A diorama is a three-dimensional, miniature exhibit that often portrays a frozen scene from a point in time.
The Encyclopædia Britannica describes the diorama:
Diorama, three-dimensional exhibit, often miniature in scale, frequently housed in a cubicle and viewed through an aperture. It usually consists of a flat or curved back cloth on which a scenic painting or photograph is mounted. Flat or solid objects are placed in front of the back cloth, and colored transparent gauze or plastic drop curtains are used to heighten the three-dimensional effect.
Daguerre also used several special effects to give life and vivacity to his dioramas — playing with light and shadow, opacity and transparency, even with the use of colored lights and filters. It was very effective and astounding during its time, and it became very popular among Parisians.
But Daguerre was still not satisfied and kept pursuing to perfect the camera obscura.
Daguerre’s Diorama: A Precedent to Cinema and Photography
Daguerre’s diorama is now often cited as a remarkable influence in the pre-history of cinema, as the use of special effects gave the audience the illusion of moving images. Film Reference writes:
The diorama’s visual pleasure was closely linked to the illusion of the passing of time and motion on screen. Later dioramas created the illusion of human movement. Daguerre’s A Midnight Mass at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont depicted an empty church at sunset; as daylight faded, candles were lit at the back of the church and slowly a congregation appeared to fill the church in preparation for mass.
However, Daguerre was not interested in the moving image yet, as he was still finding a way to capture a still image. Hence his contribution to cinema ends with the diorama.
It is not only in cinema where the diorama changed the course of its history. As the popularity of Daguerre’s miniature exhibits grew in Paris, one of the first inventors in photography, Nicéphore Niépce, heard of Louis Daguerre’s dioramas and interest in freezing a moment in time. Unsatisfied with the diorama, Daguerre formed a partnership with Niépce to achieve their goal of perfecting the camera obscura.
The Met Museum writes, “In 1829, he had formed a partnership with Nicéphore Niépce, who had been working on the same problem—how to make a permanent image using light and chemistry—and who had achieved primitive but real results as early as 1826.”
It is through that partnership where Daguerre learned about photography and helped Niépce create heliography. Even with Niépce’s death in 1833, Daguerre continued to improve his research and studies with Niépce, eventually leading him to the creation of the very first successful practical photographic process. His daguerreotype, as one would say, would be the perfected camera obscura — the perfected diorama.
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