New Technology is Able to Recover Seemingly Destroyed Early Photographs

Sunday, 24 June 2018 - 5:15PM
Sunday, 24 June 2018 - 5:15PM
New Technology is Able to Recover Seemingly Destroyed Early Photographs
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YouTube/Western University
An early precursor to modern photographs is an often forgotten thing called the "daguerrotype", which could capture light on silver-plated copper and was among the first ways to get a decent, real photo of yourself.

We say "often forgotten" because daguerrotypes were popular for only a brief window in the 1840s and 1850s before they faded away as more efficient methods caught on. And some did literally fade away - many of these first photos have been damaged by decades of abuse and they now completely obscure the old people who once posed in them. 

But a team of researchers at Western University in Ontario, Canada have figured out a way to "save" these photos using 21st century technology, so historians can finally see the non-smiling faces of these early photographic subjects. The team successfully restored two damaged daguerrotypes owned by the National Gallery of Canada, which we now know contained a man and a young woman.

Both of these photos could be as old as 1850, according to the team's research published in Scientific Reports. While the chances of discovering their identities are slim to none, they're the first successful guinea pigs for a new process that could restore many more daguerrotypes in the future. And the restoration technique revolves around knowing what chemical changes can damage the copper material over time.

The key is the hot mercury fumes used to develop the photos, which contained traces of the original image which survived underneath all the tarnishes. The researchers used a "rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging" technique to analyze the damaged photos for traces of that mercury.

Which is to say, they used a very tiny X-ray beam (only 10 by 10 microns) to painstakingly scan each particle of mercury to recapture the original image. The entire process took about eight hours for each photo.

According to the new study's lead author Madalena Kozachuk from Western University, who said the following in an official statement from the school:

Opening quote
"It's somewhat haunting because they are anonymous and yet it is striking at the same time. 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."
Closing quote

Perhaps it's good that we don't use mercury fumes in modern photography, but they certainly did their job for Louis Daguerre, who invented the daguerrotype. He (and the nameless subjects of these two old photos) might be happy to know that almost 170 years later, we can put these photos on display once again.

Science News