Chuck Close and the Daguerreotype

Chuck Close and Portraiture as Art

Chuck Close  is really a consummate artist. No, I mean an artists’ artist. Like painting larger than life, realistic portraits. I’m talking about a recognized, MoMA artist. So, why mess with photography? And an age old alternative process at that? Well, as all true artists, from Michelangelo to Picasso, their art doesn’t mean they’re locked into a specific medium. Michelangelo sculpted and did frescoes. Picasso painted and did pottery. Art has no boundaries,…and shouldn’t.


Chuck Close
Brad Pitt by © Chuck Close


Chuck Close – Great Photographic Art

Chuck Close
Size perspective

Chuck  Close did have the tutelage and technical guidance of Jerry Spagnoli, an expert in this fading alternative process.  An actual daguerreotype camera was used during the creation of each image. And “creation” it was. Trust me, this is no iPhone snap for Instagram. Thoughtful and precise methodology must be adhered to every step of the way. From exposure to the tedious process to produce these massive prints.

The daguerreotype is a process that was in common usage in the mid 19th century. The process was invented by Louis Daguerre. While it’s not the first process invented, it’s close, and became widely used after 1839. Along with the calotype, which used  silver iodide to create primitive negatives, it was really the beginning of ‘photography’.

Now let me be clear,…this is NOT an easy process, It’s slow in the best of conditions, and exposures are lengthy without using massive lumen light sources. So, whatever you’re photographing needs to be fairly still.

Creating a Daguerreotype

The procedure? Get a shiny piece of silver or silver plate. Usually pre-plated silver on copper.  There’s no reason why you have to make a prescribed image size either. But,…this material MUST be polished to a mirror finish. You are actually producing a direct positive. It’s then sensitized with bromine and iodine, and developed with mercury! This is the short version! This ain’t no piece of cake! Exposures can vary from a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes.


Chuck Close
Kate Moss by © Chuck Close


The image was then fixed with something as innocuous as table salt to as toxic as potassium cyanide.  I say “was”, because the updated procedure varies, due to the availability of the chemicals. Read the book if you’re even contemplating a go at this very difficult process. So, the next time you hear someone complain about pixels, you can feel emboldened to remark with the expletive of your choice.


Chuck Close
Lorna Simpson by © Chuck Close


In the case of Chuck Close, he used multiple high powered strobes to attain the ability to produce a shorter exposure. So, having models “all in” on the process is extremely helpful. (bright enough to almost blind) Therefore, kudos to Brad Pitt and Kate Moss. Obviously, great fans of art in general, and specifically Chuck Close. Most of the others are friends of Chuck Close, including Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, Philip Glass and other artists. His book, “Daguerreotypes“, documented the amazing output of these massive images and the exacting process to produce them.


Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman by © Chuck Close


Clarity Beyond ‘Modernity’

A daguerreotype is amazing in its’ detail and clarity. Whether you would consider this a plus or minus is totally an aesthetic decision. Chuck Close used a very short DOF, a byproduct of lens focal length, aperture, and size of surface recorded, and a pure ebony background that made every character detail even more so. Done in a manner that is “modern” in its’ visuality,  and yet ageless in its’ process.

The full body shots, especially of Kate Moss, easily cross over the realm of great photographs to art for the ages. Who, BTW, I consider the bravest of all models, past or present. Someone willing to expose themselves without benefit of the deceptive prism of fashion. Double kudos, Kate. Whom I still consider one of the most beautiful women in the world. (not counting my 10 year old daughter, of course) Other than Peter Lindbergh and Corinne Day, I haven’t seen her without make-up in much imaging.


Andreas Serrano
Andreas Serrano by © Chuck Close


Considering the additional hurdle of Chuck Close’s visual impairments, it’s a true inspiration to view him as an artist with no bounds. As it should be. Find 8×10 Camera







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