Double Take

Time Period
1825 to 1860
Art & Architecture

The original daguerreotype of Lucy Goode Tucker Chambers. It is bright and sharp, and her hands are clearly visible. This image is a mirror image of Mrs. Chambers’ true likeness. (VMHC 1974.15.12) 

Daguerreotypes are the earliest form of permanent photographic imagery. They are made by capturing an image on a polished silver-coated, light-sensitive copper plate, which is developed with mercury vapor and fixed with a salt solution. Because the finished plate is viewed from the side that was closest to the subject, when the daguerreotype is created, the image is laterally reversed—a mirror image. The use of a reflective prism could produce a right-reading image, but that was rarely done primarily because the resulting light loss would require already-long exposure times to be even longer. To get a right-reading image, the easiest solution was to make a daguerreotype of the daguerreotype. The resulting copy would read correctly. Each daguerreotype is a one-of-a-kind photograph. Because there is no negative, there is no way to produce a subsequent print. 

Two daguerreotypes of Lucy Goode Tucker Chambers in the VMHC Collections are mirror images of one another. With this set of portraits of Chambers, we are left wondering if we have two images because 1) someone wanted a right-reading image or 2) someone wanted a second copy. We’ll never know for sure, but we can enjoy this example of early photography either way. 


This is a daguerreotype copy of a daguerreotype. It is darker and not as sharp as the original. Mrs. Chambers' hands are cut off at the bottom and the image is slightly smaller than the original. This is a right-reading image and an accurate display of Mrs. Chambers’ likeness. (VMHC 1974.15.13) 

The Library of Congress has an interesting daguerreotype in their collection that shows a house with a picket fence. A landscape view like this is something that would be important to view in the correct orientation, not mirrored. To solve this problem, a mirror was included in the daguerreotype case so that the viewer could look at the photo of the house through the mirror and see a correctly oriented house and street scene. 

To learn more about the process of making a daguerreotype, check out this excellent exhibition from The J. Paul Getty Museum.

This article was written by Meg Eastman while serving as Digital Collections Manager at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.