Disappearing Sitter: The daguerreotype of this unnamed woman represents one of the earliest forms of photography. Within a month of its 2005 exhibition, a haze began to obscure the image.
Disappearing Sitter: The daguerreotype of this unnamed woman represents one of the earliest forms of photography. Within a month of its 2005 exhibition, a haze began to obscure the image.Image: COURTESY OF GEORGE EASTMAN HOUSE
- Curators monitoring an exhibition of 150-year-old daguerreotypes noticed the images clouding before their eyes. The exhibition's lights appeared to be bleaching them out, and no one knew why.
- The conservator in charge of the images teamed up with a physicist who typically works with Bose-Einstein condensates to investigate the nanoscale chemistry at the heart of the destruction.
- The results of their investigations affect not just the storage and display of priceless art, they also illuminate fundamental physical processes that could be used in nanoscale engineering.
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In the theaterlike darkness of the international Center of Photography in New York City, black-and-white ghosts of New England's mid-19th-century Boston Brahmins stared out from behind the glass-and-rosewood frames. These were the works of Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, the Rembrandts of daguerreotypy—the first practical form of photography. A demure bride in white silk crepe fingered her ribbons; the stern and haughty statesman Daniel Webster glared from behind his brow. When the “Young America” exhibit opened in 2005, its 150-year-old images captured American icons at a time when the nation was transitioning from adolescence into a world power. “Each picture glows on the wall like a stone in a mood ring,” the New York Times raved in its review.
Yet after a month on exhibit, the silver plate–bound images began to degrade. White spots overtook half the portrait of a woman in a curtain-length skirt. Iridescent halos formed on abolitionist Henry Ingersoll Bowditch. Other images blistered. By the end of the two-and-a-half-month show, 25 daguerreotypes had been damaged, five of them critically.
This article was originally published with the title The Case of the Disappearing Daguerreotypes.