Scientists Discover Lost Photographs From the 19th Century

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Old photographs on daguerreotypes can now be recovered, thanks to a team of scientists at the Western University. They learned how to use light and see the images through the degradation. The study was published on 22 June in Scientific Reports, including two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit. The photographs could be from 1850, but were so damaged and tarnished, that they were indescribable.

Madalena Kozachuk is a Ph.D. student in Western’s Department of Chemistry and the lead author of the study. She said that:

“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time. But then we see it and we can see such fine details: the eyes, the folds of the clothing, the detailed embroidered patterns of the table cloth.”

The two photographs portray a man and a woman, of unknown identities.

Daguerreotype images were invented back in 1839. They used polished silver-coated copper plate which was sensitive to light if it was exposed to iodine vapor. People had to pose for at least 2-3 minutes to get the image imprinted on the plate. Then, the image was developed using heated mercury vapor.

New Technology Unveils the Old Times of the 19th Century

The last three years, Kozachuk and her team used synchrotron technology to see that chemical changes could damage daguerreotypes.

Using rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging, Kozachuk analyzed the plates to see where the mercury was distributed on them. With a 10×10 microns X-ray beam and a sensitive energy to mercury absorption, each daguerreotype was scanned for almost eight hours.

Kozachuk’s supervisor and co-author of the study, Tsun-Kong (T.K.) Sham (Canada Research Chair in Materials and Synchrotron Radiation, Western University) said that mercury is the most important element that contributes to capturing images in those photographs:

“Even though the surface is tarnished, those image particles remain intact. By looking at the mercury, we can retrieve the image in great detail.”

In the 19th century, in just 20 years, millions of daguerreotypes were created until the method was replaced with a new one. The Canadian Photography Institute has about 2,700 daguerreotypes, excluding those in their research collection.

Restoring the old images, scientists now helped uncover lost historical records, revealing how life and times were in the 19th century.

Karen and her husband live on a plot of land in British Columbia. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. They are also currently planning a move to a small cabin they hand built. Karen’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Thus sprung Anna’s interest in backyard gardening, chicken and goat keeping, recycling and self-sufficiency.


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