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

Sit Down, John: An Adams Image Rediscovered

The historical importance of March 1843 daguerreotype was forgotten until now.

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Newly rediscovered daguerreotype of President John Quincy Adams. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

A new image of John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, will be presented for sale by the auction house Sotheby’s later this year. The March 1843 daguerreotype, which Quincy Adams gifted to a friend, remained in the recipient’s family through the generations although its historical importance was forgotten. The image was made during a sitting with early photographers Southworth & Hawes that yielded at least two daguerreotypes. A copy of the other now resides in the collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum.

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This daguerreotype copy of a second, cleaner image from the Southworth & Hawes sitting shows the former president as he actually appeared. Daguerreotypes present a mirror image of the subject; daguerreotype copies present the correct frontal view. Although it may appear so, Adams was not photographed in a private home. This set was used in other daguerreotypes taken by Southworth & Hawes. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum.

There is a third, badly damaged daguerreotype of Quincy Adams held by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Adams disliked it, noting in his diary that he thought it “hideous” because it was “too close to the original.” More than a hundred years later, in 1970, the daguerreotype was bought for 50 cents in an antique shop. After identification, it was eventually donated it to the nation.

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John Quincy Adams. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery.

Quincy Adams, born 11 July, 1767, was the son of the second U.S. president, John Adams (30 Oct., 1735-4 July, 1826)—a patriot renown as an American Founding Father. His mother, Abigail Smith (22 Nov., 1744–28 Oct., 1818), called her infant after her dying grandfather, Colonel John Quincy (21 July 21, 1689–13 July, 1767), for whom Quincy, Massachusetts, was named. Quincy Adams spent his formative years with his father on diplomatic missions to France and The Netherlands, studying for some time at the University of Leiden. He would travel to Russia and Scandinavia before returning to America to attend Harvard.

Quincy Adams served as a U.S. senator; a Harvard professor; a minister to Russia, the Court of St. James’s, Portugal, and Prussia; and secretary of state under James Monroe before narrowly winning a four-candidate presidential election in 1824. On 4 March, 1825, he took the oath of office, served one term, and was defeated by Andrew Jackson in the bitter election of 1828.

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In his prime: John Quincy Adams, aged 29, painted by John Singleton Copley. Courtesy Boston Museum of Fine Art.

Adams married British-born Louisa Catherine Johnson (12 February, 1775–15 May, 1852) in London in 1797. They had three sons and a daughter named after her mother—the latter of whom was born and died in infancy in St. Petersburg, Russia whilst the Adamses were on diplomatic assignment. One son, George Washington Adams (12 April, 1801–30 April, 1829), became a lawyer and politician. He committed suicide by jumping off a steamship in Long Island Sound in April 1829. Another son, John Adams II (4 July, 1803–23 October, 1834), was private secretary to his father during Quincy Adams’ presidency, then went into business.

John Quincy and Louisa’s youngest son, Charles Francis (18 August, 1807–21 November, 1886), led a distinguished political and diplomatic career, then turned to writing history. Charles’s son Henry Adams (16 February, 1838–27 March, 1918) was a noted historian and husband of photographer Marian “Clover” Hooper, who committed suicide by drinking her own darkroom chemical, potassium cyanide. Both Henry and Clover now lay buried in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery beneath sculptor Augustus St. Gauden’s masterpiece, “Grief.”

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The gravesite of John Quincy Adam’s grandson Henry and his wife Clover, taken in the 1970s. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Quincy Adams, whose grandson Henry was about five when he sat for the newly found daguerreotype, suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage on the floor of the House of Representatives on 21 February, 1848. He was carried to the Speaker’s room and placed in a bed; he died there two days later with his wife and son beside him. Quincy Adams was buried first in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, but was later moved to Hancock Cemetery in Quincy, Massachusetts, to rest with his ancestors. Ω

Gardeners Bring Cradle Graves Back From The Dead in Philadelphia

“Being a Grave Gardeners lets them contribute to a place that holds both personal and historic resonance.”

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Photo by Michael Bixler.

Through the stone gates of Woodlands Cemetery, a tranquil, verdant oasis thrives in the heart of University City. The Victorian necropolis, the last undeveloped parcel of the estate of botanist and plant collector William Hamilton, was preserved and a repurposed as a rural cemetery in 1840 as the city and University of Pennsylvania pushed westward. Today, The Woodlands is flourishing with the aid of creative placemaking and inventive programming.

The Grave Gardeners program is the most recent brainchild of Woodlands’ executive director Jessica Baumert and her staff. The cemetery is home to hundreds of “cradle graves,” tombs with both headstones and footstones connected by two low walls that create a bathtub-like basin. In the 1800s, family members of the deceased filled the French-style “cradles” with living, blooming coverlets of flowers. Cultivating these gardens on weekend outings to sylvan cemetery grounds like The Woodlands was a way of keeping a loved one’s memory alive. As descendants scattered and their memories of connections to Victorian ancestors faded, the gardens died out. The Woodlands’ Adopt-a-Grave program enlists the help of volunteers to revive these now scruffy patches of dirt and grass, one grave at a time.

To read this wonderful article in its entirety, click the link below.

Source: Gardeners Bring Cradle Graves Back From The Dead | Hidden City Philadelphia


Thank you to my dear cousin, Elizabeth Harrison, for calling this to my attention.