When I visited A New Power, the Bodleian Library’s photo-history exhibition which ran earlier this spring, I was fascinated to learn how daguerreotype images were used to produce wood engravings which then became the basis for newspaper illustration, an application of the daguerreotype process of which I had been totally unaware, and so I turned to Dominic Smith’s novel with a new interest in Louis Daguerre and his legacy.
A little frustratingly for a photo-history enthusiast, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre begins at a point when the hero’s main accomplishments have already taken place. He is a well-known figure in Paris, and wears the cross of the French Legion of Honour with great pride. Something of a dandy, we see him strutting the streets from barber shop to the Paris Observatory like a plump and smiling peacock. But something is amiss. His patron and friend, mathematician and astronomer Francois Arago, is worried about Daguerre’s health, but Daguerre has found another confidant in poet Charles Baudelaire who leads a ramshackle existence in Montmartre. It is to Baudelaire that Daguerre shares a list of ten items, a photographic bucket list, of images he wishes to capture before he dies. Chief of these is to be an image of Isobel Le Fournier, his childhood sweetheart, and the story of their doomed love unfolds alongside his photographic quest until, in a disturbing encounter, past and present collide.
I was gratified that the history of Daguerres’ photographic discoveries came to light along with the love story and enjoyed the cascade of detail with which Paris is described, but I felt a bit bogged down in the backstory until the central revelation took place. That said, the character of Daguerre as portrayed by Smith, was highly believable, and the denouement was beautifully handled. Daguerre, after all, was only slightly mad (it’s clear from the outset that he is suffering physical and mental damage from exposure to mercury) and so there is mundanity as well as mania in his ambitions. The novel also added significantly to my impression of the tumultuous times in which he lived.
The author is candid in his notes about how much (or little) of the story has a basis in historical fact but whatever the ‘truth’ of Smith’s account, it most certainly hangs together within its own frames of reference. It has also made me consider that historical fiction must do more than chronicle (even in a creative way) known events and must add some fictional magic, be it of time, place or personage, to what we already know. I suppose what we want is a rounding out of history and will accept what makes a full and satisfying story. I found it thought-provoking that the Daguerre we meet here, in the last stages of his life, may have had no ‘real’ existence and at the same time is given a life beyond what any other book can tell us.
What of the daguerreotype? The New Power exhibition has been followed by Bright Sparks, (still running as I write) which puts the emphasis squarely on Fox Talbot as founding father of photography. But it was a confluence of scientific ideas that resulted in Daguerre’s and Fox Talbot’s respective photographic discoveries and although it’s generally (ducks to avoid the flack!) accepted that Talbot’s negative-positive method laid the foundations of photographic developments in the 19th and 20th centuries (as suggested in this review) that should not allow us to ignore Daguerre’s achievements nor the beauty and durability of the thousands of images created in his wake.
For the history of it all, I can do no better than recommend Roger Watson and Helen Rappoport’s 2014 account Capturing the Light which charts the progress of the two very different men who seemed to be vying for the world’s attention when in fact they never met. There are lots of online daguerrotype collections or you could look on Facebook for Jack Wilgus who with his wife Beverley posts mesmerising examples from a huge photographic collection, also at http://brightbytes.com/collection/collect.html