Early Photography in Argentina*

by Miguel Angel Cuarterolo
Translation by CE Feiling

* This text was published in the book Los años del daguerrotipo. Primeras fotografías argentinas 1843-1870, Buenos Aires, Fundación Antorchas, 1995

Author unknown
Plaza de la Victoria
Daguerreotype, 16.5 x 21.5 cm
Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1854
Museo Histórico Nacional

On August 19th 1839, during the monarchy of Louis-Philippe, the physicist and astronomer François Arago, Deputy for the Eastern Pyrenees and prominent member of the liberal parliamentary opposition, presented the daguerreotype at the Academy of Sciences in Paris. The invention was the product of more than ten year’s research by Nicéphore Niepce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who had striven to find a way of fixing permanently on some medium images generated by the old artifice of camera obscura.

The history of the daguerreotype, which heralded the Age of Photography and was one of the greatest achievements of the nineteenth century, began with Niepce. In 1826, after exposing to the sun for eight hours a plate covered with an asphalt emulsion, bitumen of Judea, he obtained the world’s first photographic image—a view from the window of his house in Chalon-sur-Saône—, which he called heliography. Six years later, in order to improve his invention, Niepce associated with Daguerre. It was the latter who, in 1833, after his partner’s death and thanks to the accidental discovery of a way of developing the plate with mercury vapour, finally arrived at the first practical process for fixing a photographic image, the one which bears his name.

The daguerreotype, copiously covered by the press, was welcomed enthusiastically in the world’s most important cities. After examining some trial pictures, the Paris correspondent of the New York Star wrote: I have never seen something so perfect to the eye; each object seemed to be finely engraved, but with a magnifying glass one could observe the different grains of each stone in the pavement; one could have even guessed the composition, the essence of each object.1

Between 1839 and 1841, a book written by Daguerre in order to explain the operative and technical aspects of his invention, A Historical and Descriptive Account of the Various Processes of the Daguerreotype and the Diorama, reached thirty-two editions and was translated into eight languages. The invention had already been bought by the French Government, who put it at the disposal of the public in exchange for a life pension of six-thousand francs for Daguerre and four-thousand for Niepce’s son.

Almost simultaneously with Daguerre, in 1840, the Englishman Henry Fox Talbot patented a photographic process he called calotype, the first one to yield multiple positive images from a single paper negative. Calotypes were not as visually perfect as daguerreotypes: they had a lot of chiaroscuro, and the texture of the paper conferred to the image a painterly quality which was in sharp contrast with the high definition of the daguerreotype. Being patented, calotypes had an additional disadvantage: they could not be used freely, so in spite of the fact that they constitute the first step towards the multiple-copy process nowadays common, they never became very popular outside Great Britain. Henry Fox Talbot, however, is justly considered—with Niepce and Daguerre—one of the inventors of photography.

In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer invented the collodion wet plates, which shortened exposure time and had innumerable applications, among them the ferrotype and the ambrotype, single images like the daguerreotype, but much cheaper. The first was patented by the American Hamilton Smith in 1856, and became very popular because of its low cost: many itinerant photographers continued to employ it until the beginning of the twentieth century. Ambrotypes used to be presented in cases similar to those of daguerreotypes, and sometimes can be confused with them. In Argentina they were never very popular, since they arrived in the early 1870s, practically at the same time as albumen paper photography, an even cheaper process which offered the possibility of obtaining many copies, invented in 1850 by Louis Blanquart-Evrard.

Albumen paper was the crucial step towards the much desired reproducible photography, and with the cartes de visite—printed by the million throughout the world on that paper, and patented by the Parisian photographer Alphonse Disdéri in 1854—began an exceptional era for the industry and commercialisation of photography. That era continues to this day, although the cartes de visite were replaced by other formats around 1880.

Author unknown
General Juan Gregorio Las Heras
Daguerreotype, 10.5 x 7.7 cm
Argentina, ca. 1850-1855
Complejo Museográfico Enrique Udaondo

Author unknown
Eugenio María de Santa Coloma and his sons
Fernando, Manuel and Alberto
Daguerreotype, 21.5 x 16.2, ca 1848-1858
Museo Histórico Nacional

The alchemy of images

It is difficult to imagine now the sort of impact the daguerreotype had on nineteenth-century society. The fidelity of the photographic image bore no comparison with the mere likeness, often quite mediocre, attained by the painters of miniature portraits, whom the new invention practically eliminated from the market—many of them, in fact, chose to become daguerreotypists. Although the bourgeoisie did not consider the daguerreotype an artistic form, it was quickly accepted as a reliable method of reproducing the human figure.

As in any photographic process, the use of light was a decisive factor for achieving a good daguerreotype. Itinerant photographers, who set up temporary galleries in inadequate premises or rented rooms, normally employed as their source of light a window facing south, and would work between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon. The studio of Thomas Helsby, the best in Buenos Aires around 1851, had a gallery with a glass ceiling and curtains that could be adjusted to control the passage of light, so the photographer could go around his client in a circle and choose the appropriate angle.

The portraitists would recommend their customers how to dress for the camera. Men in dark suits,2 says Juan Portal’s advertisement, published in 1853. Women were suggested to avoid light colours, especially white. According to some photographers, silk mantillas and gloves added to the beauty of the picture. Patterned or chequered fabrics were recommended for children.

Hand-coloured daguerreotypes constituted an expensive but highly appreciated speciality. The cheeks of ladies and girls were painted a very light, slightly transparent crimson; dresses were dark blue or green; jewels, buttons, military decorations and the handles of sticks were covered with golden oil, which enhanced them and added lustre. In the times of Rosas men took care to have the mandatory red badge highlighted. Colours were applied to the slippery surface of the plate with fine brushes of sable hair or with a dove’s feather, then sprinkled with powdered Arabic gum and fixed to the image with the help of moisture from the daguerreotypist’s own breath.

Daguerreotypes were normally delivered to the client either framed or in a case, but are also found in lockets, medallions, rings, bracelets and watches. Until about 1855, the cases were identical to those used for miniature portraits, small wooden ones covered with morocco and lined with silk or velvet. Later, on account of the great popularity of the medium in the United States, special cases began to be manufactured, made from a mixture of wood-shavings and lacquer and moulded on patterns of careful design. While the American daguerreotypists who worked in Buenos Aires tended to prefer cases, their European counterparts usually opted for wooden or papier mâché frames in Victorian style.

As only a few daguerreotypists signed their work, most of them remain anonymous. Artists like Amadeo Gras, Saturnino Masoni, Juan Portal and Anselmo Fleurquin would engrave their names in a crner of the plate, following a practice common among lithographers. Sometimes, daguerreotypists signed in black ink on a paper they stuck on the back of the plate, where they also wrote the name and age of the sitter, the date of the picture and the phrase daguerreotype portrait. American artists usually had their names engraved on a golden passe-partout, which they called mat, a practice that in Argentina was followed by Charles DeForest Fredricks and William Weston. Europeans, on the other hand, preferred to apply stamps or lithographic labels with their name and address to the cases or frames.

Daguerreotypists devoted most of their time to individual or group portraits, which were also their main source of income. The images they created were simple, from the waist up, and their sitters look tense because they had to remain absolutely still while the picture was being taken. Special chairs and head props, similar to those used by dentists, ensured that the customer would not yield to the temptation of altering his or her posture. Around 1850, however, the improvement of the lenses and the greater sensitivity of the plates shortened exposure time, an event which changed the characteristics of the daguerreotype portrait.

The daguerreotype was cultivated in Argentina between 1843 and 1860, but it did not have a big market because of its high cost, which greatly detracted from its popularity. In 1848 there were ten daguerreotypists in Buenos Aires, all of them foreigners and all of them itinerant: they charged between a hundred and two hundred pesos for a portrait, while a shop attendant earned twenty pesos a month. In New York, at around the same time, there were seventy-seven studios, and thanks to this competition a portrait, which cost fifteen dollars in 1843, could be bought for only one dollar ten years later.

A hundred thousand daguerreotypes were made in Paris in 1849, and by 1853 three million had been produced in the United States. In Buenos Aires, Thomas Helsby boasted that he had taken six hundred in a few years: these figures put the production of daguerreotypes in the country into perspective.

Between 1865 and 1870, during the War against Paraguay, the cartes de visite were the only photographic process being used in Buenos Aires, at least if one goes by the advertisements in the press. There was a vigorous competition to photograph the soldiers that were leaving for the front, who could buy a dozen cartes de visite to distribute among friends and relatives for a prize much cheaper than the one of a daguerreotype or ambrotype. In a sense, the War transformed the photographic portrait into a social habit.

The first daguerreotypes of the River Plate

The rust daguerreotypes of the River Plate were views of Montevideo, taken in February 1840 by the French priest Louis Compte, chaplain of the training ship L’Orientale, which had left Nantes in December 1839 under Captain Augustin Lucas and was circumnavigating the globe. A letter from one of the passengers states that the ship carried a daguerreotype to take, with the precision that characterizes them, the best vistas, of the cities and places one should know.3 The camera was among the first ones to be produced by the workshop of the Frenchman Alphonse Giroux; it cost around four hundred francs and bore on one of its sides, as a sign of its authenticity, a metal plaque with the signature of Daguerre.

Father Compte declared that he had been instructed by Daguerre himself in the use of the camera. On January 17th 1840 he took in Rio de Janeiro the first daguerreotypes of Brasilia, an event which the Jornal de Comércio saluted in the following words: A photographic experiment took place in the fonda de Pharoux [...] Father Compte was responsible for it. He is one of the passengers on board the corvette Orientale, and he carries with him Daguerre’s clever invention.4 A month later, the Orientale reached Montevideo, where the Uruguayan legislature hosted the first of a series of demonstrations on February 29 1840. Tomás Iriarte, an Argentine witness of that event, wrote in his memoirs: Once prepared and put into the camera, the plate received by refraction the object it had to draw, and then reproduced with admirable precision the front of the Cathedral, [...] the dust of the Plaza down to the small marks left on it by the carriages and the French Warship two leagues away.5 That same day, during the afternoon, Compte placed his camera in front of the house of the Foreign Minister, Santiago Vázquez, and took from there an excellent view of the Cabildo, which he presented to the Uruguayan Doctor Teodoro Vilardebó.

In articles they published, both Vilardebó and the Argentine journalist Florencio Varela have left wonderful descriptions of the photographic experiences of the summer of 1840 in Montevideo. On March 4th, Varela wrote in the Comercio del Plata: The images of our elegant Cathedral, of our humble House of Representatives, of our beautiful bay with its forest of masts and its waterfront factories which provide leather and meat to foreign countries, of our Cerro in the background, modestly enhancing both the factories and the masts, have been reproduced, thanks to Daguerre’s genius, before our very eyes on brilliant metal, in such a true and beautiful way that defies the most delicate brush or finest burin He also pointed out that the apparatus we have seen sailed out of France in September of last year, a month after its invention became public. We know from reports that since then it has been improved considerably…6

On March 6th, Vilardebó regretted, in an article for the Nacional, that Daguerre’s camera could not be used for making portraits: It is a pity that the daguerreotype cannot be used for portraits, which would be extraordinarily lifelike, but the total immobility of the face, and especially of the eyes, which would have to be directly exposed to the sunlight, constitutes an insurmountable difficulty. Daguerre, however, has observed that the sitter’s eyes could be protected with blue glass, which does not affect the action of the light on the plate…7

Two days later, in a letter to Juan Thompson, the son of Mariquita Sánchez—whose husband was then the French Consul in Montevideo—, Varela quotes some of the concepts set down by Daguerre in his famous handbook and defines the daguerreotype as a medium capable of reproducing Nature: I spent the day examining the daguerreotype, a wonderful invention of M. Daguerre which fixes the images of the camera obscura and copies Nature with an inconceivable perfection, with the sole help of light.8

Author unknown
Florencio Varela, with her daughter María
Daguerreotype, 8 x 6.9 cm
Montevideo, ca. 1847
Museo Histórico Nacional

The first photographers

Daguerreotypes were mentioned for the first time in the Buenos Aires press on March 11th 1840, in the Gaceta Mercantil; the article merely reproduced one published in France seven months before, and made no reference to the recent experiences in Montevideo. Three years had to pass before the daguerreotype arrived in form to Buenos Aires, a delay undoubtedly caused by the French naval blockade.

In June 1843 advertisements began to appear in the Gaceta Mercantil, the British Packett and the Diario de la Tarde, in which the American John Elliot announced the opening of his studio at number 56 of the Recova Nueva. At the same time, the Litografia Argentina of 28 Potosí, property of the Spaniard Gregorio Ibarra, informed the public it had received from Paris two cameras with all their accessories, to take portraits and views. It seems evident that both Elliot and Ibarra had some technical difficulties, because a month after his advertisement the American announced that having overcome the obstacles which at first encumbered him, he is now ready to make individual or group portraits of great precision and according to the newest advancements in the art. He will be at his house every day, from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. Persons who wish to sit for a portrait may be sure that the likeness will be perfect and last longer than any painting.9 Ibarra, on the other hand, announced on July 30th that he was raffling his camera, which seems to imply that he had not mastered its operation and consequently desisted from incorporating daguerreotypes to his lithographic studio.

The daguerreotype did not awake the same popular interest in Buenos Aires, which was still very much a small town and retained many of its old colonial habits, as in Paris or New York. In 1844, Elliot was the only daguerreotypist in the city, although by then he had moved to 106 Victoria Street. An advertisement published on May 11th said: a portrait takes between 20 seconds and a minute and a half: [Mr Elliot] receives between ten in the morning and three in the afternoon. The price of his portraits, presented in a case, is 100 pesos.10 In August 1844, only a year after his first advertisements, Elliot ceases to publish them, so we may assume that his business did not prosper and the photographer left the country.

Another American, John Amstrong Bennet, opened the second studio of Buenos Aires in 1845, at number 121 of Piedad Street. He came from Mobile, Alabama, and had been a daguerreotypist in Montevideo during 1842 and 1843; by the end of 1845, however, he had left Buenos Aires for Bogotá, Colombia, where apart from practising his craft he became an agent for the American Government. In 1846, Thomas Columbus Helsby, who owned the Montevideana gallery in Uruguay with his brother William, made frequent trips to Buenos Aires and worked as an itinerant portraitist at 52 Cangallo. In due time, he occupied Bennet’s premises at 121 Piedad, and around 1850 he opened the best studio in Buenos Aires: it occupied the upper storey of 37 Victoria Street, and had two rooms, one of them the waiting-room. In 1853 he became established in Chile with his brother, where they set up prestigious galleries both in Santiago and Valparaíso.

Charles DeForest Fredricks, the most important photographer among those active in Argentina in the mid-nineteenth century, came to the River Plate after having been an itinerant daguerreotypist in Venezuela, Brazil and Uruguay. On October 26th 1852, once established at 98 Piedad as Carlos D. Fredricks & Cía., he published an advertisement in the Nacional with the title Electrotype Vistas of the City of Buenos Aires. It read: Professors Carlos D. Fredricks & Co. have just published in big plates [16cm x 21cm] a collection of vistas of Buenos Aires, taken from the most favourable points of observation and the first ever to be produced using this system. The public is invited to judge by itself. They also wish to announce that the plates can be had at moderate prices. Those interested would do well in taking advantage of this opportunity as soon as possible…11

The official iconography of Argentina, combining the fidelity of the daguerreotype with the capacity of the lithography as a means of mass communication, started to take shape after Rosas’ fall. In 1853, Urquiza asked the Frenchman Amadeo Gras to make portraits of the Delegates to the Constitutional Assembly that met in Santa Fe. Later, those daguerreotypes were reproduced in a series of lithographic plates by the Parisian publisher Labergue. Gras was never paid for this work, and after he died his son complained unsuccessfully to Congress several times.

Although the first itinerant daguerreotypists worked in Buenos Aires, the Italian Aristide Stephani opened the first provincial gallery as early as 1846, in the city of Corrientes, where Anselmo Fleurquin and Joaquín Olarán would also be active soon afterwards. In 1855, the German Adolf Alexander crossed the Andes from Chile to work in San Juan and Mendoza, and a year later Amadeo Jacques—the future headmaster of the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires—was earning his living as a daguerreotypist in Santa Fe and Tucumán. At about the same time, Desiderio Aguiar—born in the Province of San Juan—, the Englishman Fergusson and the American Bradley prospered by taking photographs of the families of the principal cattle-owners in Dolores, Chascomús, Campana, Baradero, Salto and Colón.

The habit of photographing the sick and the dead, whose pictures are quite common among European and American daguerreotypes, had its counterpart in Argentina. In 1848, Helsby offered his customers an exact likeness of the dear departed, which may afterwards be conveniently copied by the brush. Thus preserving their features and making them look as if they were still with us.12 The hand-coloured image of Colonel Ramón Lista, which was taken after his death and now is part of the collection of the Luján Museum, is an excellent example of the genre.

At the height of the daguerreotype period, between approximately 1855 and 1858, the names of Federico Artigue, Antonio Aldanondo, Bartolomé Bossi, Walter Bradley, Pedro Gartland, Emilio Lahore, Francisco Meeks, Arthur Terry and Antonio Pozzo were among those of many that devoted themselves to the new craft. The only woman daguerreotypist we know about was Antonia Annat de Brunet, a painter who in 1854 had her studio at 126 Cuyo St.

In 1852, Juan Camaña brought to Buenos Aires the stereoscopic daguerreotype, a novelty that had amazed Queen Victoria the year before, during the London World Fair, and which photographers in Paris employed almost solely for making female nudes. It consisted of two apparently identical images, that seen through a peephole included in the case looked three-dimensional. Stereoscopic daguerreotypes were not very popular because of their high cost, but there is one at the Museo Histórico Nacional, a hand-coloured portrait of a man, taken at the Paris studio of the well-known American daguerreotypist and inventor Warren Thompson.

In August 1944, the Witcomb Gallery organized an exhibition of six hundred daguerreotypes from private and public collections; the catalogue was edited by the Instituto de Numismática y Antigüedades. It was the most important ever to take place in the country, and its catalogue is even today the best inventory of daguerreotypes in Argentina. Fifty years afterwards, this book, which is in fact a catalogue raisonné of the two biggest public Argentine collections, reproduces the 242 daguerreotypes that are kept at the Museo Histórico Nacional and the Museo de Luján. They are two collections of great historical value, which include the only known photograph of General San Martín, as well as nine vistas of Buenos Aires in full plate (16cm x 21cm), true incunabula of South-American iconography.

Author unknown
Club of Foreign Residents in Buenos Aires
Daguerreotype, 10.9 x 14 cm
Argentina, 1854
Complejo Museográfico Enrique Udaondo


1 New York Star, October 14th 1839. Marie-Loup Saugez, Historia de la fotografía, Cátedra, Madrid, 1981, p.61 (re-translated from the Spanish version).

2 Julio Riobó, La daguerrotipia y los daguerrotipos en Buenos Aires, published by the autor, 1950, p.38.

3 Riobó, op. cit., p.19. The word daguerreotype has been used, as was sometimes customary, to name the camera. It was also usual to call outdoor shots vistas.

4 Jornal de Comércio, January 17th 1840, quoted in Boris Kossoy, Origem e expansão da fotografia no Brasil, Funarte, Rio de Janeiro, 1980, p.17.

5 Tomás de Iriarte, La tiranía de Rosas y el bloqueo francés, Memorias, t.6, Ediciones Argentinas SIA, Buenos Aires, 1948, p.184.

6 Comercio del Plata, Montevideo, March 4th 1840.

7 El Nacional, Montevideo, March 6th 1840.

8 Instituto de Numismática y Antigüedades, Catálogo de la exposición de daguerrotipos y fotografías en vidrio, Witcomb, Buenos Aires, 1944. p.59.

9 Diario de la Tarde, August 24th 1843. The date is conventionally accepted by historians as marking the birth of Argentine photography.

10 Gaceta Mercantil, May 11th 1844.

11 Cuarterolo, Miguel Angel and Casaballe, Amado B., Imágenes del Río de la Plata, Ediciones del Fotógrafo, Buenos Aires, 1985, 2nd. ed., p.30.

12 Riobó, op. cit., p.36.


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