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The uncanny beauty of decayed Daguerreotypes
January 8, 2013 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Daguerreotype portraits were made by the model posing (often with head fixed in place with a clamp to keep it still the few minutes required) before an exposed light-sensitive silvered copper plate, which was then developed by mercury fumes and fixed with salts. This fixing however was far from permanent – like the people they captured the images too were subject to change and decay. They were extremely sensitive to scratches, dust, hair, etc, and particularly the rubbing of the glass cover if the glue holding it in place deteriorated. As well as rubbing, the glass itself can also deteriorate and bubbles of solvent explode upon the image.
posted by Horace Rumpole (17 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
To add to this, one of the most well-known Dags, Boulevard to Temple, was wiped and destroyed by a curator at a museum in Munich, who was attempting to clean it.
The only reason we still have it (and such good quality) is because photo historian Beaumont Newhall photographed it a few years prior to it being "cleaned."
posted by starman at 9:40 AM on January 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


This calls to mind a funny association.

Whenever I visit a zoo, it always seems to me that the animals have a kind of elemental grace, a quality of being absolutely themselves, that the humans watching them seem to lack. And probably this is more about my perception than the animals or people: being human, my eye is highly attuned to variations among people, the associations of clothing, the meaning of body language and so on. What I see when I look at people is all variation, whereas the animals, to which I'm less attuned, seem more like embodiments of their Platonic selves. What I see in people is their temporal aspect, while with animals, I tend to see the archetypal. Or at least, the measure of temporal to archetypal is much higher when I look at people.

Looking at these images in all their ghostly beauty, I think I feel something the same. The people are precisely captured as individuals - individuals staying still, in clothing lost past fashion, so it's harder for me to read them than my contemporaries, but still completely human in face and expression. The decayed form is far simpler, a play of much more archetypal qualities - light and shade, line and blur.

So to my eyes, the people, mixed with these elemental aspects, don't look impermanent. They look eternal.
posted by Kit W at 9:58 AM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


The "unidentified elderly woman with cap" appears to be metamorphosing into some kind of ghost panda. Perhaps this is her spirit animal.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:04 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


This also brings to mind Bill Morrison's hypnotic film made from decaying footage, appropriately titled Decasia, which leaves one with some unforgettable images flickering in the vaults and crevices of the ol' grey matter.
posted by sonascope at 10:06 AM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Making daguerreotypes to memorialize dead children was also quite popular back in the day. I'll post a link to evidence of the practice once I get to a computer. It lends a certain colour to the "decaying" quality of the medium.
posted by Catchfire at 10:11 AM on January 8, 2013


I have in my ownership an old tintype--like a daguerrotype in that it's metal-backed, but much younger--which is slowly rotting away. From some angles you can hardly see anything, but if you tilt it this way and that, you can make out four men looking right at you. I managed to take a photograph of it in its best, and to my delight discovered something I couldn't see in the original: one of the men has the biggest toothy grin on his face.
posted by Jehan at 10:12 AM on January 8, 2013


I have in my ownership an old tintype...
posted by Jehan at 12:12 PM on January 8 [+][!]


I want to seeeeeee!
posted by Krazor at 10:26 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Making daguerreotypes to memorialize dead children was also quite popular back in the day.

Not that it's a thing of the past, of course; charities that support parents who've lost babies to stillbirth often recommend that the parents do take some photographs, maybe clip some hair or take some handprints, to have some recorded memories of the child. Having been close to people that happened to, I've seen it be very comforting. The child has faded from your life; the idea of their face fading from your memory at all can be too much to bear.
posted by Kit W at 10:27 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suggest that anyone interested in modern usage of the Daguerreotype process take a look at the work that Chuck Close (best known of his paintings) is doing. Amazing stuff, in my opinion.
posted by blaneyphoto at 10:38 AM on January 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


I got to work on a project turning a digitalized copy of a 1848 daguerreotype of the Cincinnati riverfront into a huge 55" multitouch application. There was also a companion website but it seems to be down right now.

As cool as the app was, the actual artifact was 100 times cooler.

If you find yourself at the Main Branch of the Cincinnati Library you should check both out.
posted by Mick at 10:53 AM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


This also brings to mind Bill Morrison's hypnotic film made from decaying footage, appropriately titled Decasia, which leaves one with some unforgettable images flickering in the vaults and crevices of the ol' grey matter.

I immediately thought of the very wonderful Decasia as well. These are fabulous.
posted by OmieWise at 11:11 AM on January 8, 2013


Re that Chuck Close page blaneyphoto mentions , this quote stands out:

Because the usual exposure for this old art form takes around a couple of minutes, Mr. Close used six flash strobes to make the exposure almost instantaneous. According to him, "Your eyes slam shut so fast, it feels like somebody stuck an ice pick into the middle of your eye. If we don't have the shields, you can smell your hair and your face burning.

The times, they are a changing.
posted by Twang at 11:20 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I want to seeeeeee!
Okay, but you're going have to squint hard: old tintype and close up of big grin.
posted by Jehan at 11:29 AM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


T͝h͠ey̨ ̸lơo҉k normal t͏o͢ m͡é.̀
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:29 AM on January 8, 2013


blaneyphoto that third link of yours is NSFW.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:11 PM on January 8, 2013


What I love about decayed photographs is that time and history are physically present, like rings on a tree stump. It's like looking at a tangible memory.
posted by book 'em dano at 1:36 PM on January 8, 2013


The "Portrait of Emma Gillingham Bostwick" looks like she's in the process of turning into a skeleton. I kinda like it, even though it's starting to creep me out.
posted by CancerMan at 2:28 PM on January 8, 2013


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