My Daguerrean Gurus

The Daguerreotype Workshop with Jerry Spagnoli in Rome, SMPhoto Conservation
The Daguerreotype Workshop with Jerry Spagnoli in Rome, SMPhoto Conservation

While making the current sensitising boxes, I would like to share abit of how I began my journey into the 19th Century image-making.

My first experience encountering anything that I had only seen in the photo-history books and documentaries on TV, was a daguerreotype. In 2011 on every Thursday in London, the Spitalfield market held various antique items for sale, selling various range of items from chairs to stamps, weapons and such. I came across a booth which had a few cased daguerreotypes which what I thought at first, was a few dirty old plates on display.

It wasn’t obvious at first glance, but when picked up, like many curious minds, when picked up to view them, the image just pops out from the surface! Between the tarnished mirror, laid a gentleman posed slightly to the side, well dressed and remarkably detailed. (this I would reveal in another blog post)

I just had to purchase it, a decent sith plate size, with tattered casing, but reasonable condition overall, I paid a London price of course.

Once I brought it home, I just stared at it like a cursed object, bewildered at such thing as how this was made. Though against any conservation and certainly collectors’ nightmare, I disassamble it and peered through how this was made. (I know, my bad… stop gasping already!)

I began to see that this might be my new journey, I just had to find out who would be able to teach me how to make them. Of course hearing that making daguerreotypes, based on literatures, mentioned the use of various degrees of dangerous, some of them controlled, chemicals. This had discouraged me somewhat, but with the power of Google, I managed to find a kindred soul that later initiated my learning into this craft.

It was Christopher Brenton West. (

Christopher Brenton West, the Daguerreotypist, artist, and my first Guru.
Christopher Brenton West, the Daguerreotypist, artist, and my first Guru.

Based in Oxfordshire, I contacted him late in December to find out if he hold any personal teaching / workshop. Though he mentioned that this could only be done with good amount of light, utilising only natural lights. Knowing British weather, this won’t happen til later in February. As I know, very few days where we could hit above EV 15.

February comes, I travelled by train from London to meet with him at his home studio in Oxfordshire. The day class was packed and certainly he pours out details in how to make becquerel daguerreotypes in most practical method. That was exciting workshop and I studied in detail on the camera, the fuming processes, tools, his previous works; everything seemed so practical and doable.

Later, I studied the tools in making fuming / sensitising boxes, and with his advise in terms of practicality and design, I had successfully made a small batch of boxes which had a number of interest. That had kept me going to study and modify with my own aesthetics.with the box. (refer to future posts on the sensitising box, version 3-3)


Years had pass, and of course I had stumbled across another 19th Century image-making process, the wet plate collodion, which was made accessible to me at that point via online / book publication (which I had studied from literatures provided by Quinn Jacobson and Mark & France-Scully Osterman’s manual, and later from John Coffers as well). At first those literatures were meant to be supplements, but it had grown a part of my image-making as well.

The first few years, I had studied the cameras, the lenses, and all other sorts of methods (alongside my arduous PhD and many level of presentation exams). That had gave me only few moments in various time of the year to establish my knowledge in the craft. But of course, without any studio space, workshop, and just having a tiny apartment (without much space to wiggle any sort of fuming cabinet), I knew fuming Iodine will be out of the question.

The Fox Talbot Museum, neighbouring the Lacock Abbey, home of William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the founding father of Photography, had hosted one of the Grandmaster of Daguerrotype, Mike Robinson.  I just couldn’t resist, I had to learn what I could, I don’t know if I have a chance again in the future as most of the workshops I really wanted to look into are always on the other side of the pond.

Mike Robinson, at the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock.
Mike Robinson, at the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock.

The learning of the craft had lasted for four solid days, using the Mercury method, I began to see and understood the difference of quality between the it and the becquerel method. Though, I do suspect it was the clad plates that Mike produced the silky quality images compared to my own electroplated silver plates.


Only months after the workshop, another Master had appeared to come over to Europe, specifically in Rome, none other than Jerry Spagnoli. Now, greed for knowledge (and greatly depleting account travelling as well!) came across me and irrational decision had took over. I just had to go and learn from him. Plus I really wanted to see Rome as well.

Jerry Spagnoli, SMPhoto Conservation, in Nemi, Rome.
Jerry Spagnoli, SMPhoto Conservation, in Nemi, Rome.

Jerry’s teaching methods was, and I believe from my point of view, similar style to Brenton’s methods, both had taught the Becquerel dag and gave very extensive and practical methods and approach. I know sometime there would be temptation to compare, however, respectfully I believe all three had gave me a definitive view in learning this craft:

The Masters would only provide all the basic guidelines to conduct and initiate image-making, however, it would be the student’s will (me in particular) to endure and presevere to practice and excel through experience.

I believe all of them went through thousands of failed plates before making beautiful plates as if it was like breathing for them.

Christopher Brenton West, Mike Robinson, and Jerry Spagnoli, all three of you have my utmost gratitude and now will be my journey to practice what you all had preached to me.


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