News / Science & Technology

Smithsonian, Argonne Team Up to Save Earliest Known Photographs

Smithsonian, Argonne Team Up to Save Earliest Known Photographsi
X
August 15, 2013 7:39 PM
The introduction of the daguerreotype in the 19th century ushered in the era of modern photography. Instead of sitting long hours for an artist to paint a portrait, customers could sit for just a few minutes while their true likeness was captured in what is now known as a photograph. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, research scientists at the Smithsonian Institution are teaming up with physicists at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago to study these earliest known photographs, which are in danger of being lost forever.
Kane Farabaugh
The introduction of the daguerreotype in the 19th century ushered in the era of modern photography. Instead of sitting long hours for an artist to paint a portrait, customers could sit for just a few minutes while their true likeness was captured in what is now known as a photograph. Research scientists at the Smithsonian Institution are teaming up with physicists at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago to study these earliest known photographs, which are in danger of being lost forever.

The woman in the image most likely was in her late teens or early 20s when her likeness was preserved on this copper plate with finely polished silver in the mid-19th century.

Daniel Weinberg, of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, has handled many such daguerreotypes, which are popular with collectors and historians alike.

“It was the first time you could go into a studio and have your photograph taken, and you could put it up somewhere and show it off,” he said. “They’re luminous, and they’re almost three dimensional, and you almost want to step into one.”

19th century Americana

Weinberg also said daguerreotypes were one of a kind, not meant to be reproduced like current photographs. And although invented by a Frenchman - Louis Daguerre - they changed the American landscape in the mid-1800s.

“America really took off with the daguerreotype, and a vast majority of them were American,” said Weinberg.

“It spread like wildfire in the United States. There were hundreds of thousands of daguerreotypes made over a 20-year time span,” said Ed Vicenzi, research scientist at the Smithsonian Institution.

Many of the most important images now reside at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, including the one of a mysterious young woman that research scientist Vicenzi whimsically calls “Clara” - although her real name is unknown.

“We don’t know her name, her family, the state she’s from,” he said.

What Vicenzi does know is the image from the past is in danger of being lost in the future unless something is done to stop the breakdown of its microscopic chemical makeup.

“So daguerreotypes are actually made up of a bunch of nanoparticles on the surface that scatter the light and this is in some ways similar to the way technology devices are made today, so we’re also interested in what did 19th century photographers know about nanotechnology unwittingly,” he said.

Preserving history

Physicist Volker Rose is working with Vicenzi, at Argonne National Laboratory, by focusing the intense X-rays of Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source at fragments of the daguerreotype.

“Those objects are almost 200 years old, and they were made at a time when the concept of nanotechnology, even the word at that time, didn’t exist,” he said.

“We can focus those X-rays down to very small spot sizes. This allows us to look very deep into material, but also get a lot of information on a very small length scale,” said Rose.

“The technology that’s available at the Advanced Photon Source will allow me to study the very early stages of degradation of daguerreotype plates. They corrode over time, but we need to learn the chemical mechanisms in order to understand how we can preserve these objects for the future,” said Vicenzi.

Vicenzi hopes his efforts at Argonne will provide the answers historians, preservationists and collectors seek to guide them in saving these images of the past - so future generations can study, understand and appreciate first-hand what life was like in the 19th century.

You May Like

Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Seen as a potential driver of recovery, Cairo’s plan to expand waterway had been raising hopes to give country much needed economic boost More

Ebola Maternity Ward in Sierra Leone First of its Kind

Country already had one of world's highest maternal mortality rates before Ebola arrived, virus has added even more complications to health care More

Malaysia Flight 370 Disappearance Ruled Accident

Aircraft disappeared on March 8, 2014; with ruling, families of 239 passengers and crew can now seek compensation from airline More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: history buff
August 17, 2013 5:12 PM
This is a most interesting piece! My family owns daguerreotypes and I have always been fascinated by them. Good luck to the researchers.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Productioni
X
George Putic
January 29, 2015 9:43 PM
The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Production

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Super Bowl Ads Compete for Eyes on TV, Web

Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1) is about more than just the NFL's American football championship and big parties to watch the game. Viewers also tune in for the world famous commercials that send Facebook and Twitter abuzz. Daniela Schrier reports on the social media rewards for America’s priciest advertising.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Freedom on Decline Worldwide, Report Says

The state of global freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2014, according to global watchdog Freedom House's annual report released Wednesday. VOA's William Gallo has more.
Video

Video MRI Seems to Help Diagnose Prostate Cancer, Preliminary Study Shows

Just as with mammography used to detect breast cancer, there's a lot of controversy about tests used to diagnose prostate cancer. Fortunately, a new study shows doctors may now have a more reliable way to diagnose prostate cancer for high risk patients. More from VOA's Carol Pearson.
Video

Video Smartphones About to Make Leap, Carry Basic Senses

Long-distance communication contains mostly sounds and pictures - for now. But scientists in Britain say they are close to creating additions for our smartphones that will make it possible to send taste, smell and even a basic touch. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Crowded Republican Presidential Field Off to Early Start for 2016

It seems early, but the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign is already heating up. Though no one has officially announced a candidacy, several potential Republican contenders have been busy speaking to conservative groups about making a White House run next year. Many of the possible contenders are critical of the Obama administration’s foreign policy record. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid