1848 Daguerreotypes

There is a fairly remarkable story on ‘Wired’ about the digital cleaning of the 1848 daugerreotypes by Charles Fontayne and William Porte, a set of eight whole plate (8.5 x6.5″) images taken from across the river at Cincinnati and together showing a couple of miles of the waterfront (with some small gaps.) By 1848 the daguerreotype process was more than 10 years old, although it was only announced to the world in 1839, and technically had been considerably improved, particularly in the USA.

We’ve long known the incredible detail of the best daguerreotypes, so the hype around this particular set of pictures is rather overdone, but it’s certainly good to see that the images can be restored to something like their original state by scanning and the use of digital techniques to remove spots, although I rather wish they had ignored the wishes of the art historians and also removed the polishing marks.

If anything the actual resolution of the images turns out to be rather less than I expected, with a 1mm wide clock face being only just legible after the cleaning process.  An 8.5 inch wide print is around 216mm wide, which would be around 20 pixels wide from a D700 file and that might also be just enough to make out the time.  But if I read correctly the Bite piece suggests that you would need a 170Mp back rather than the 12Mp of the D700 to match the dags, and that doesn’t quite seem right.  Perhaps digital pixels are worth more than dag pixels, just as we found we could outdo film with around a third of the pixel count?

Probably what limited the resolution of the dag were the optics, though at least they had a simpler job to do than today’s lenses, as the plates were only blue sensitive. And since the image made in the camera was the actual final piece, in normal viewing their was no enlargement.  It’s perhaps surprising that the “details — down to window curtains and wheel spokes — remained crisp even at 30X magnification” as this was rather more than required, but I get pretty crisp detail when I enlarge a 12Mp digital file from the D700 by the same amount too.

The daguerreotype is not the only highly detailed process, and perhaps the real trail-blazers were the giant(or even Mammoth) plates taken by some wet plate photographers, which I think would be difficult to equal with modern materials, even by the few people I’ve known who’ve used larger than 8×10 film cameras.

Byte describe it as “one of the most famous photographs in the history of the medium” though I doubt if many of us have heard of this set of pictures and one of the things that appeals to me greatly is how ordinary it is. But it gives us a small glimpse into everyday life in one US city 162 years ago, which is truly remarkable. Of course its great value comes from the rarity of such images at the time – taking them was both expensive and highly skilled. But I think it is likely to be true that those images that we take today which will become truly valuable in the future are not the arty or conceptual creations that currently clog many gallery spaces and dealers, but pictures of the ordinary and everyday.

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