Old Daguerreotypes Shed New Light on Life in 19th Century America

Typically my article ideas come from, you know, the Internet. But this morning I was reading a fascinating piece in the current issue of Wired that was so astonishing and so cool, I just had to share it with the Geeks Are Sexy crew. Thankfully Wired presents much of their magazine content online, and in this case, the article is quite enhanced in the digital version.

So, here’s the basics of the story according to Wired. Two photographers in the early days of the art, Charles Fontayne and William Porter, snapped a shot of Cincinnati in 1848. That’s pre-Civil War, and remarkably early–not only in terms of technology, but considering the fact that the pieces are still around today. The process they used included a total of eight daguerreotype plated, and the resulting picture captured 2 miles of the waterfront, including steamships, industrial and commercial buildings, and glimpses into the daily life of the various Cincinnati inhabitants.

But here’s where the process gets even cooler. Their methods produced an image so startlingly clear that, when the plates were taken for observation, it was determined that blowing up the image to 170 x 20 feet still wouldn’t compromise clarity. As Wired explains, “a digicam would have to record 140,000 megapixels per shot to match that.”

As a result, the details presented in the photograph upon magnification are absolutely astounding, down to the time on the clocktower (which in the original is only 1mm wide, but can be read as 1:55pm when zoomed in). Some particularly interesting things to note include photo documentation of one of the first astronomical observatories, steamships, and free blacks who, according to the article, “were building a community in Cincinnati, just across the line from Kentucky slave country.”

Daguerreotypes are an exercise of remarkable science, the process much more akin to strange alchemy than the method we’re familiar with today. The name comes from its inventor, Louis Daguerre. Components involved included mercury, silver, copper, and iodine vapor. The resulting image looks like a mirror if approached from the side, but produces magnificently detailed images with remarkable depth.

Wired does a great job of explaining the tedious—and poisonous—process:

Daguerreotypes start as copper plates with a thin, mirror-polished coating of silver that’s been exposed to halogen gas (iodine or bromine) to make silver halide. Light hitting this compound knocks an electron loose, which attaches to a silver ion, forming a neutral silver atom. The result is that all the places on the plate exposed to light are clusters of pure silver, and the rest is silver halide.

Next, the exposed plate is held over a warm pool of mercury (don’t breathe!). The mercury combines with the silver atoms, creating the equivalent of a digital image’s pixel: a tiny “grain” between 150 and 800 nanometers in diameter that scatters light, making areas of the surface that were exposed to more light appear brighter. Finally, the plate is soaked in sodium thiosulfate, which washes away the unexposed silver halide, leaving dark regions — the image’s blacks and grays.

So, while we carry cameras around with us every day, there is still something to be said for this lost art. As dangerous as the process is, the daguerreotype still provides a most remarkable image in a very low-tech, high-science kind of way. There’s something rather artful about that, and just so breathtaking considering the images as this one left behind. It offers us a literal window into a world that otherwise would be obscured and, in my mind and hopefully yours, instills a respect for the forefathers of the art of photography.

Be sure to check out the interactive photograph at Wired, too. You can drag around the box and explore the details of the famed daguerreotype, picking up all of the clues left behind. It really is like going back in time, inasmuch as it’s possible. According to the article, there are plans to build an online interactive, zoomable version of the image soon. I can’t wait.

[Photos: Top – via Wired, courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Bottom – a daguerreotype camera circa 1839, in the pubic domain]

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