Digitizing a Daguerreotype

By Lisa Terech, Youth Engagement / Programs

It started as an innocent questions; it presented an interesting digitization challenge!  While working on a presentation, I asked our archivist if we had any Daguerreotype photographs in the collection, and if we did, were there any photographs of it?  It turns out we have ONE Daguerreotype in the collection, it needs digitizing, and if I wanted to use an image of it, the job of digitizing was all mine!  Well, what a challenge it posed!

A970.53.1 - unidentified woman, daguerreotype photograph

A970.53.1 – unidentified woman, daguerreotype photograph

Firstly, what is a Daguerreotype?  It was an early form of photography, first developed in 1837.  The process involved a copper plate, coated with silver iodide,  and exposed to light in a camera.  The copper plate is then fumed with mercury vapour and fixed (made permanent) by a solution of common salt.  It was a long process, with the person having to sit for the photograph for up to 30 minutes.  This medium saw popularity from the early 1840s to the late 1850s.

A970.53.1 - our 'ghostly' Daguerreotype, disappearing at different angles

A970.53.1 – our ‘ghostly’ Daguerreotype, disappearing at different angles

Our Daguerreotype turned out to be a challenge because, over time, it has turned ‘ghostly.’ The subject is a woman, however, depending on the angle that it’s being viewed at, she is either in focus or appears faded away.  To digitize her, we needed to ensure our camera was in just the right spot!

Tabletop Digitization Studio

Tabletop Digitization Studio

We have a lovely tabletop light studio, perfect for photographing small artifacts, and it proved ideal for the Daguerreotype!  What worked the best was draping a black cloth over the studio, thereby blocking out potential reflections, having the camera square on the photograph, and setting the timer.

Challenge Accepted! Challenge Completed!

A970.53.1_4

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