George Eastman House takes steps to preserve daguerreotypes

07:36 PM, Jan 02, 2013

Ralph Wiegandt displays a daguerreotype that was made in the mid-1800s at his work station at the George Eastman House. The Eastman House is working with the University of Rochester to preserve the daguerreotypes. (Lauren Petracca)/

Written By James Goodman | Staff writer

Ralph Wiegandt is determined to preserve the earliest of photographs and has teamed up with the University of Rochester to use the latest technology to understand what might be ailing these treasures.

As a conservator for the George Eastman House, Wiegandt has a collection of as many as 5,000 daguerreotype photos — dating back more than 150 years — under his watch.

The problem surfaced in 2005 when a haze was noticed under the glass of five of the 150 framed daguerreotype photographs on exhibit in New York City. The Eastman House organized the exhibit, which also came to Rochester and traveled to Boston, and contributed about half of the photographs — including several that showed damage.

While daguerreotypes are susceptible to deterioration, the degree and inexplicable nature of the haze set off alarms in the artistic community. Questions arose about whether these historical photographs, which recorded an image on a silver-plated sheet of copper sensitized to light and treated with mercury vapors, were in jeopardy.

A change had occurred and we needed an explanation,” Wiegandt said.
YouTube: The Nanotechnology of the Daguerroeotype

But a simple explanation was not forthcoming.

Steps are now being taken by the Eastman House to protect a collection of 1,270 daguerreotypes created by Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, whose 19th-century Boston firm was renowned for its work in daguerreotypes.

By the end of this month, Wiegandt will begin putting argon — an inert gas that doesn’t oxidize — into each of the daguerreotypes from the Eastman House’s Southworth-Hawes collection. It will take about six months, at a cost of about $100,000, to complete this task.

Wiegandt has benefited from the scientific expertise of Nicholas Bigelow, who is chairman of UR’s Physics and Astronomy Department and has a deep background in how metals interact as head of the college’s Integrated Nanosystems Center.

I was taken by the power of the images offered by the daguerreotype, by the potential of nanoscience being involved and by the tragic degradation that was being observed,” said Bigelow, who helped UR get a $450,000 National Science Foundation grant to work with the Eastman House in doing research about the daguerreotypes.

Bigelow applied some of the same principles involved in understanding how atoms interact in nanotechnology to the problem with the daguerreotypes — saying that the tools of nanoscience have provided insight into the degradation.

At UR’s nanocenter, a focused ion beam made tiny incisions into daguerreotypes, allowing Wiegandt to zero in on possible problems with a scanning electron microscope magnifying as much as 150,000 times.

Bigelow, on a video UR has made about the preservation project, describes what was found: “The daguerreotype is a biologically active surface. We discovered that on essentially every daguerreotype we looked at there are small colonies of fungi growing. And these fungi are, in fact, damaging the surface.”

There are a number of other dimensions to the daguerreotype research being conducted in this collaboration, which has been encouraged by a 2010 alliance established between UR and the Eastman House to work together on any number of issues.

Scientists know that when two pure metals are joined, pockets can be created in the alloy formed — a phenomenon called the Kirkendall effect. Bigelow wondered whether such pockets might result when mercury interacted with the silver in the creation of the photograph in the daguerreotype process. The cavities could harbor contaminants.

Residual chlorides from when daguerreotypes were processed might also cause degradation, Wiegandt said.

An article in the December issue of Scientific American tells of the high stakes of the problem. “The vanishing images suggested that any daguerreotype could spontaneously crumble. Collectors feared they would lose their million-dollar collections. Conservators feared these windows into the 19th century might simply cloud over.”

Daguerreotypes and history

Whether the argon solves the problem or turns out to be a stopgap measure probably won’t be known until the research progresses.

But once damage is done to a daguerreotype, a reproduction can’t be made. Each daguerreotype is unique and doesn’t have a negative to make copies.

Daguerreotypes have a special place in the history of photography, with the changes that were expected because of this new photographic process heralded by the French newspaper Gazette de France in 1839 as a breakthrough that “upsets all scientific theories of light and optics.”

While historians credit Joseph Nicephore Niepce with making the first photographic image in 1826, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a French painter who initially had been a partner of Niepce, developed a technique for taking photographs that could be used commercially.

It was the first time people could capture what their eye saw. Before that you had to draw it,” said Wiegandt.

The photographic process bearing Daguerre’s name entails recording a photographic image on a silver-plated sheet of copper treated with iodine or bromine vapors to make it light sensitive and then making the image recorded permanent with mercury fumes.

In this process, the light reflects off the person or objects to create an image on the silver plate. The light, Wiegandt noted, causes the silver iodide or bromide to convert to silver, with the image being darkest where the iodide or bromide did not react with light.

In the United States, and to a lesser degree France and England, daguerreotypes became a craze, from the 1840s until the Civil War, when a process using light-sensitive silver in a liquid-based medium provided a safer and more economical process.

During the heyday of the daguerreotypes, portraits and family photos were readily made in studios found in cities and frontier towns.

Daguerreotypes were one of a kind. You created a silvery-looking image,” said William Snyder, chair of the photojournalism program at Rochester Institute of Technology in Henrietta.

By the time the Eastman House opened in 1949, daguerreotypes were collector’s items. But a decade earlier the Eastman Kodak Co. wanted to make sure that it possessed part of this history and purchased a collection that included about 500 daguerreotypes, which are now part of the Eastman collections.

The heart of the Eastman House daguerreotype collection came in 1952, when Chicago collector Alden Scott Boyer donated 1,270 Southworth-Hawes daguerreotypes to the Rochester museum.

They are beautiful, They are the most detailed photographic process — bar none. You can take a magnifying glass and keep seeing,” said Joe Struble, archivist for the photographic collection at the Eastman House.

Preservation and research

Wiegandt’s argon preservation project will take place in the Kay R. Whitmore Conservation Center, located in the addition to the Eastman House where the collection of daguerreotypes are stored in vaults.

Wiegandt already has some experience with argon, using it as a preservation measure for a panorama of eight daguerreotypes at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

During a testing on a daguerreotype last week, Wiegandt opened the valve on the tank of argon in the laboratory. And when the computer program on the laptop showed that the oxygen level was zero, Wiegandt sealed the frame.

When Wiegandt starts with the Southworth-Hawes collection, he will be assisted by Ania Michas, a conservator hired for the project.

Wiegandt’s met Bigelow in 2009, when he was invited to address the 2009 convention of the state chapter of the American Physical Society, held at UR.

In addition to doing research at UR’s nanocenter, Wiegandt meets regularly with Bigelow at UR and over beer at the Old Toad pub on Alexander Street.

But there is still much to learn about the mystery of the daguerreotypes.

We have an idea of some of the agents of deterioration, but we also discovered new threats to the daguerreotype,” Wiegandt said.