On January 7, 1839, French printmaker Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre presented a new invention to the French Academie des Sciences. An image of reflected light captured on a silver-plated sheet of copper, the invention would become the first ever commercially successful photographic process: the daguerreotype. The amazement at the time towards the image-making process which by now has become quite mundane can be seen in one contemporary journalists’ exclamation: viewing a photograph of a dead spider, he wrote, one “could follow its anatomy with or without a magnifying glass, as in nature.”
It’s now 2018, and the daguerreotype—due to cost, weight, and the ease of other photographic methods—has been largely forgotten as an image making process. However, these finely crafted images, with their distinct and numerous shades of grey, are as culturally important as ever. With photographic images coating our shared world, they remind us how far we’ve come and how—only a couple hundred years ago—such accurate reflections of reality were unheard of, a science fiction wonder.
Unfortunately, many daguerreotypes—due to tarnish and other signs of time—are completely opaque. No exact calculations have been made to my knowledge (and you can see unclouded examples here), but considering the relatively small amount of daguerreotypes ever made—the process was expensive, relegated to European elites, and subjects had to sit for three minutes to be accurately captured—any loss of specimens is crucial. As Daggeurobase explains, “Many aspects of the daguerreotype still need to be discovered… to understand the impact of photography on Europe’s social and cultural history.”
Luckily, a team of scientist from The University Western Ontario has hit upon a method for uncovering the original image from behind the dust and grime, without actually manipulating the metal plate at all. This latter fact is important, as methods of extraction or cleaning can often ended up causing more harm than good. As they explain, by scanning the metal plates for relative concentrations of mercury—then reconstructing the original image by layering these separate levels of analysis—they achieve a refurbished image, identical to the original, in a “non-invasive, non-contact, and non-destructive manner.”
Examples of their work, with the original (A) on the left, and the revealed image (B), on the right:
No word yet on how this discovery will be implemented, but the scientists note optimistically that, “The ability to recover lost images will enable museums to expand their understanding of daguerreotype collections.” In addition, it can be used to elucidate the finer aspects some well-known daguerreotypes, such as one of Abraham Lincoln, or Robert Cornelius, the latter believed to be the first daguerreotype taken in North America.
Also, The Daguerreian Society must be HYPE.