Daguerre Monument

Jonathan Scott Hartley


Not the least of the questions of a monument is whether it is art.  The Daguerre Monument, literally an object in a Smithsonian art museum, is a work of art that itself monumentalizes the medium of photography.  At the same time, especially at its current location, it serves also as a public monument (or more exactly a memorial).  Which just brings up more questions.

Commissioned by the Photographers Association of America in 1889, exactly fifty years after the public announcement and instant acclaim of Daguerre’s photographic invention, the work was immediately given to the Smithsonian.  Like many another object in the Smithsonian collections, it is thus a token by which an industry works to legitimate itself.  This particular object has been extraordinarily successfully not only in justifying its makers but even further raising the status of their profession.  After spending some time in storage starting in the 1960’s, in 1989, one hundred years after its conception, it was placed outside the museum, visible to passersby on 7th street.  It sponsor was the same, albeit renamed organization, the Professional Photographers of America.  It is probably the only artwork of the museum that most people see.  From its origin, that is, this monument, in a near-perfect condition thanks to the government funds that supported its conservation, brings up questions of the privatized ties of a federal agency and, by association, the authority of the historical record of a national museum.

The Daguerre monument also provides a perspective on the public image of photography itself and its global uses.   This monument does not merely put Daguerre on a pedestal but also the entire globe.  Daguerre’s head appears as a sort of emblem leaning against the vast globe.  The head was modeled after a photograph made in Paris by an American photographer but has somehow become three-dimensional, sculpted in high relief and jutting out oddly from a frame held by a kneeling female figure representing Fame.  Photography is not itself depicted on the monument.  Its real subject is the global dominion of the medium, making the globe a large backdrop to Daguerre himself, the theatre for his invention.  From its inception, photography was indeed widely practiced throughout the world, and among its specialties was circulating images of distant places and exotic peoples around the world (though that was hardly its only use).  The Daguerre monument frames this activity with a particular geopolitical orientation, placing directly above Daguerre’s head the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and thus making Europe and America bracket the great man.   Thus even if photography is acknowledged as a global art, the monument also establishes some parts of the globe as more visible than others.  All parts of the monument—globe, likeness and two pedestals—are tied together by a somewhat menacing-looking garland of laurels that curls throughout and continues into the viewers space, presumably referring to the continuing presence of photography in the present day.

Though you would never know it from this monument, who actually invented photography is a vexed question among historians.  While the publicly prominent Daguerre, in France, was celebrated by the French government as the medium’s inventor, at just about exactly the same time an Englishman, William Henry Fox-Talbot, had independently established a competing photographic process.  Indeed, both were predated by others, such as Nicéphore Niépce (who showed his work to Daguerre after he took what was likely the first photograph).  In the 19thcentury, great national debates took place in Europe over who was first and which process had priority claim.  Daguerre’s process (called Daguerreotype) created a direct impression on a metal plate.  Fox-Talbot’s process (which he called Calotype) instead created a unique negative which could then be used to make one or more identical “positive” prints. For the times when the monument was created, in 1889, and then moved to its position of greater prominence, 1989, the negative-positive, multiple-image process invented by Fox-Talbot was vastly more popular, and lucrative, than the cumbersome, single-image process of Daguerre. It is thus especially mysterious, why the monument singles out Daguerre when it might just as easily present the larger picture of both inventors.  No American was involved in the invention, so it is hardly a question of national pride.   Just what is it, then?  The monument leaves us with this very question.