The Grandmother and aunts of the photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, c. 1850.
"A Portrait of Immortality, Faded"
July 31st, 2013
The New Yorker
In 1843, a Dartmouth College freshman named Augustus Washington needed to earn some money for tuition. As a man of mixed-race—a black father, a South Asian mother—many professions were closed to him. But anyone could learn the new art of daguerreotype photography, which had been perfected and publicized a few years earlier by the French artist Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. After mastering the bulky camera, Washington opened a studio in Hartford, Connecticut, where he made a good living photographing middle-class families.
In 1853, Washington began to document a more public piece of history: he emigrated to the newly established Republic of Liberia, where he photographed former American slaves trying to build a free republic in West Africa. Today, Washington’s portraits of Liberian colonists are among the few surviving images of a strange political experiment. Daguerreotypists like Washington were history’s first reliable photographic witnesses: they documented the Gold Rush, early surgical procedures, and the fierce face of the hundred-and-one-year-old Baltus Stone, one of the last surviving Revolutionary War veterans. They captured the sunken-eyed stare of a newly elected congressman named Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, daguerreotypes and other early photography techniques played a prominent role in the “cult of memory” created by the hundreds of thousands of families torn apart by the fighting.
Daguerreotypes are still cherished for their eerie clarity—each plate in an 1848 series of photographs of the Cincinnati waterfront, for example, is equivalent to a hundred-forty-thousand-megapixel photo. They are so detailed that a viewer can distinguish the time on a clock tower, German names on storefronts, and underwear hanging from apartment clotheslines.
Made with a light-sensitive plate held within a shoe-box-sized wooden camera, daguerreotypes required such long exposure times—the earliest daguerreotypes sometimes required subjects to sit still for as long as thirty minutes, though exposure times fell over the life of the technology—that subjects were often held in place with iron collars fitted to the backs of their chairs. The discomfort was apparently worth the novel promise of immortality. And daguerreotypes did initially seem to promise a more robust form of immortality than its successor, photography: because the images were produced on metal plates rather than more fragile material like paper, it was thought that they would be more resistant to degradation.
Yet of the millions of daguerreotypes created during the technology’s heyday, only a small fraction survives. Many were simply discarded—miracles that had become mundane. Others were destroyed by well-meaning, but disastrous, cleaning techniques: in 1934, when a London photographer attempted to restore a nearly century-old portrait of Dorothy Draper, the sister of the scientist and physician John Draper, he accidentally erased the image. In an abject letter to the portrait’s owner, he expressed his regrets: “It is bewildering and has many times made me feel quite dizzy.”
While some daguerreotypes do survive today in excellent condition—even some of the earliest examples, such as a photograph that Daguerre presented to the Austrian chancellor in 1839, are in good shape—other images now seem to be slowly fogging and darkening, even when protected from tarnish under a layer of glass. In 2005, shortly after a well-known set of daguerreotypes from the Eastman House, an independent photography museum in Rochester, New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston were exhibited at the International Center of Photography, curators used high-resolution imaging to examine them; they found the degradation to be so sudden and extensive that several other museums took their own daguerreotypes off display, fearing similar casualties.
Daguerreotypes are made in several steps. First, a copper plate coated with silver halides—compounds made of silver and a halogen, like silver iodide—is exposed to light, which renders the image in a pattern of pure silver and silver halides. The plate is then exposed to mercury vapor, which bonds with the silver to create silver-mercury crystals in the light areas of the image. Finally, it is washed in a solution that removes the halides from the dark areas of the image, leaving behind pure silver. The silver-mercury crystals appear white, while the pure silver appears black, creating an image that seems etched onto the plate.
Early photographers didn’t realize just how complex their creations were. Edward Vicenzi, a researcher at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, has looked closely at daguerreotypes with a variety of tools, including the Advanced Photon Source, at Argonne National Laboratory, the brightest X rays in the Western Hemisphere. “It’s become clear that there are a beautiful range of nanostructures, just a wealth of information at an impossibly tiny scale,” he said.
At Eastman, the conservator Ralph Wiegandt has also examined the physical structure of daguerreotypes, using an electron microscope to explore a three-dimensional landscape. On the surface of the daguerreotypes, and in a network of tiny voids underneath the silver-mercury crystals, Wiegandt and Nicholas Bigelow, a physicist at the University of Rochester, have found contaminants like chlorine and fungi, which may help explain the degradation of some daguerreotypes.
Bigelow, Wiegandt, and others have theorized that the Eastman House images, originally taken in Boston, trapped chlorine from the sea air in their subsurface voids. When the images were exposed to light, the chlorine reacted with the silver plate and clouded the surface. Others suggest that the tin boxes and other materials used to store some of the daguerreotypes in the past have reacted with the chemicals on and in the images.
While sealed enclosures filled with nonreactive gas such as argon can forestall some of these damaging reactions, any preservation has to balance access against longevity. “If you put your daguerreotypes in an inert atmosphere, in the dark, at zero degrees centigrade, maybe they’ll last for a thousand years,” said Grant Romer, a former Eastman conservator and a daguerreotype specialist. “But what’s the use of having them if you can’t see them?” Photographs are intended to be enduring but not eternal, said Romer, and some degradation may be as inevitable as human aging.
The daguerreotypist Augustus Washington died in 1875 in Liberia, having served three terms in the Liberian legislature and established a thousand-acre sugarcane farm near Monrovia. His emigrant portraits are now stored in the Library of Congress, and while most are in good condition, a portrait of the second Liberian president, Stephen Allen Benson, is now obscured by a dark haze. The silvery surface of the daguerreotype, it seems, is as complex as some of the political legacy it preserves.