Hidden Behind Time: A New Way to Recapture Lost Images

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This daguerreotype was thought lost to the ages until rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging analyzed the plate. Courtesy Western University of Ontario.

By University of Western Ontario

Art curators will be able to recover images on daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography that used silver plates, after a team of scientists led by Western University learned how to use light to see through degradation that has occurred over time.

Research published in June 2018 in Scientific Reports—Nature includes two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit that show photographs that were taken, perhaps as early as 1850, but were no longer visible because of tarnish and other damage. The retrieved images, one of a woman and the other of a man, were beyond recognition.

“It’s somewhat haunting because they are anonymous and yet it is striking at the same time,” said Madalena Kozachuk, a Ph.D. student in Western’s Department of Chemistry and lead author of the scientific paper.

“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time,” continues Kozachuk. “But then we see it and we can see such fine details: the eyes, the folds of the clothing, the detailed embroidered patterns of the tablecloth.”

The identities of the woman and the man are not known. It’s possible that the plates were produced in the United States, but they could be from Europe.

For the past three years, Kozachuk and an interdisciplinary team of scientists have been exploring how to use synchrotron technology to learn more about chemical changes that damage daguerreotypes.

Invented in 1839, daguerreotype images were created using a highly polished silver-coated copper plate that was sensitive to light when exposed to an iodine vapor. Subjects had to pose without moving for two to three minutes for the image to imprint on the plate, which was then developed as a photograph using a mercury vapor that was heated.

Kozachuk conducts much of her research at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) and previously published results in scientific journals in 2017 and earlier this year. In those articles, the team members identified the chemical composition of the tarnish and how it changed from one point to another on a daguerreotype.

“We compared degradation that looked like corrosion versus a cloudiness from the residue from products used during the rinsing of the photographs during production versus degradation from the cover glass. When you look at these degraded photographs, you don’t see one type of degradation,” says Ian Coulthard, a senior scientist at the CLS and one of Kozachuk’s co-supervisors. He is also a co-author on the research papers.

This preliminary research at the CLS led to today’s paper and the images Kozachuk collected at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source where she was able to analyze the daguerreotypes in their entirety.

Kozachuk used rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging to analyze the plates, which are about 7.5 cm wide and identified where mercury was distributed on the plates. With an X-ray beam as small as 10×10 microns (a human scalp hair averages 75 microns across) and at an energy most sensitive to mercury absorption, the scan of each daguerreotype took about eight hours.

“Mercury is the major element that contributes to the imagery captured in these photographs. Even though the surface is tarnished, those image particles remain intact. By looking at the mercury, we can retrieve the image in great detail,” said Tsun-Kong Sham, Canada Research Chair in Materials and Synchrotron Radiation at Western University. He also is a co-author of the research and Kozachuk’s supervisor.

This research will contribute to improving how daguerreotype images are recovered when cleaning is possible and will provide a way to seeing what’s below the tarnish if cleaning is not possible.

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What scanning revealed: A Victorian beauty, now no longer forgotten. Courtesy Western University.

The prospect of improved conservation methods intrigues John P. McElhone, recently retired as the chief of Conservation and Technical Research at the Canadian Photography Institute of National Gallery of Canada. He provided the daguerreotypes from the Institute’s research collection.

“There are a lot of interesting questions that at this stage of our knowledge can only be answered by a sophisticated scientific approach,” said McElhone, another of the co-authors of today’s paper. “A conservator’s first step is to have a full and complete understanding of what the material is and how it is assembled on a microscopic and even nanoscale level. We want to find out how the chemicals are arranged on the surface and that understanding gives us access to theories about how degradation happens and how that degradation can possibly or possibly not be reversed.”

As the first commercialized photographic process, the daguerreotype is thought to be the first “true” visual representation of history. Unlike painters who could use “poetic license” in their work, the daguerreotype reflected precisely what was photographed.

Thousands and perhaps millions of daguerreotypes were created over 20 years in the 19th century before the process was replaced. The Canadian Photography Institute collection numbers more than 2,700, not including the daguerreotypes in the institute’s research collection.

By improving the process of restoring these centuries-old images, the scientists are contributing to the historical record. What was thought to be lost that showed the life and times of people from the 19th century can now be found. Ω

“With Great Sorrow I Address You”

“Platitudes for the fallen officer were given in great numbers and the correspondent concluded with a highly personal plea: ‘Poor Joe! May the turf lie lightly on his manly breast.’”

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Major Joseph Gilmour, 48th Pennsylvania

“In the spring of 1864, the pages of Schuylkill County’s most important newspaper was filled with information of exciting events from America’s increasingly bloody civil war. But amid the news of battlefield drama also came the sorrowful news of local soldiers cut to pieces during hellish combat in the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside.”

Read more via Wynning History’s “With great sorrow I address you” – A heartbreaking letter to the father of a fallen Civil War soldier. Ω

“Young Hickory of the Granite Hills”

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection

I own a stereoview card, one half which is seen above, that may portray mourners of President Franklin Pierce. To accompany this image, I am reblogging an excellent look at Pierce’s life and burial place by Gravely Speaking, an historian after my own heart.

Gravely Speaking

A sign outside the gates of the Old North Cemetery announces the burial of the most New Hampshire native son within its fencing.  The sign outlines the major accomplishments of Franklin Pierce:

FRANKLIN PIERCE

1804 – 1869

Fourteenth President of the United States

(1853 -1857)

Lies buried in nearby Minot enclosure.

Native son of New Hampshire,

Graduate of Bowdoin College,

Lawyer, effective political leader,

Congressman and U.S. Senator,

Mexican War veteran, courageous

Advocate of States’ rights,

He was popularly known as

“Young Hickory of the Granite Hills.”

While the sign outlines Pierce’s political accomplishments, there is nothing about his personal life.  Franklin Pierce was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire.  He married Jane Appleton, the daughter of a Congregational minister.  Jane and Franklin were nearly polar opposites.  Franklin was outgoing and gregarious.  Jane was shy and suffered from depression.  Jane was pro-temperance and devoutly religious.  Jane was from a family that…

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Band on the Run

Callithumpian band? Wholesale arrests? Mayor Ephraim Smyser Hugentugler? Enjoy this retelling of a shambolic day in York, Pennsylvania, by historian James Rada, Jr.

Time Will Tell

Continental Square.jpg Continental Square in York, Pa. Courtesy of the York History Center.

The metallic reverberating sound of gongs repeatedly sounded throughout downtown York, Pa., in August of 1925. It was a sound people recognized as the alert on a fire truck. Somewhere in York, a fire was burning.

“During the disturbance patrons of theaters, hurriedly snatched their wraps and fled from the amusement places to ‘go to the fire.’ Others telephoned or went to their homes,” The York Dispatch reported.

People attending a municipal band concert at Farquhar Park heard the gongs over the music and streamed out of the park, seeking the fire or their homes to make sure that it wasn’t burning.

The problem was that there was no fire. “A callithumpian band mounted on a truck which also carried, despite their objections the bride and bridegroom, coursed about downtown streets for about an hour last evening,” The York…

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The Year Thanksgiving Was Moved Up a Week

As we hear the starting gun of the holiday season, here is another wonderful read by Ken Zurski of the site Unremembered.

UNREMEMBERED

By Ken Zurski

In September of 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a presidential proclamation to move Thanksgiving one week earlier, to November 23, the fourth Thursday of the month, rather than the traditional last Thursday of the month, where it had been observed since the Civil War.

Roosevelt was being pressured by the Retail Dry Goods Association a group that represented merchants who were already reeling from the Great Depression. Thursday of that year fell on the 30th, the fifth week and final day of November, and late for the start of the shopping season. The business owners went to Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins who went to Roosevelt. Help out the retailers, Hopkins pleaded. Roosevelt listened. He was trying to fix the economy not break it.

Thanksgiving would be celebrated one week earlier, he announced.

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Apparently, the move was within his presidential powers since no precedent on the date was set…

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Take Them Out to the Ball Game

“Boetticher’s drawing, released in 1864, was hardly the perception of prison camps at the time. In it, the players look healthy, even happy. The spectators are just as engaged. Lively conversations are taking place around the makeshift diamond. There are no guards, no guns, no torture, no death.”

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“In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, Otto Boetticher left his job as a commercial artist to join the 68th New York Volunteers. Shortly after enlisting, Boetticher, who was born in Germany and came to the U.S around 1850, was captured and sent to a prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. He wasn’t there very long. Thanks to a prisoner swap and after only a few months in captivity, he was set free.

“Before leaving, however, Boetticher, did a drawing of a prisoner game of baseball.”

Continue reading at Ken Zurski’s constantly amazing blog, Unremembered. Ω

His Drawing of Prison Camp Baseball Endures