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Cincinnati, Ohio. September 1848. 1:55pm.
August 11, 2010 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Eight daguerreotypes from 1848, taken by Charles Fontayne and William Porter, which comprise a panorama of the waterfront of Cincinnati, Ohio, at the city's zenith have recently been restored revealing astonishing detail for photographs of that era, like a legible clocktower 1mm wide in the original, and people walking the streets of the city.

John R. Reusing, development director at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, which owns the daguerreotypes, is spearheading the effort to raise funds for a website to display high resolution versions of the images online at the same time the daguerreotypes go on public view.
posted by ocherdraco (19 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
That panorama is strangely nostalgia inducing. I wish more of those from other cities were available from as far back as the 1840s.

Here's a modern photographer who uses daguerreotypes.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:23 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I knew it -- things really WERE sepia toned back then!!
posted by hermitosis at 9:25 AM on August 11, 2010


Here's a link with the photos and descriptions.
I love this stuff. Thanks, ocherdraco!
posted by Floydd at 9:26 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, that's great, Floydd! I hadn't found that site. Here is the image with the clocktower. That site also has a higher resolution version of the whole panorama.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:33 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Related: Panoramic Photographs from the Library of Congress.

I particularly recommend the Cityscapes and Landscapes links. For example, San Francisco, 1851, taken from Rincon Hill. Also note, these images are available in very high rez, suitable for high quality printing and framing.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:48 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Slow exposures (blurry people), very fine-grained chemistry, plus a good lens equals high resolution. I learned this lesson back when I was shooting black and white photos using Tri-X, Plus-X and Pan-X film. Another important consideration: these photos are the original images--no negative was involved in their creation, there is no step between exposure and final print. This, too, contributes to their incredible detail.

All that said, these are great. Photography this early always grabs me--the immediacy of the images is so jarring given their age. So this is really what the past looked like? Wow. We're now so accustomed to life being documented photographically in exhaustive detail that we take it for granted; when these plates were made the process was still a rarity and required great patience and no small amount of skill.

I too wish there were more examples around, but given the hassles involved with the process I guess we should be grateful for what we have. Thanks for posting this, ocherdraco! Cinci sure has changed but it's still a river town and it's gratifying to see its origins so vividly captured (although it looks like the place was bustling already, earlier than I'd imagined. Did I spot a Skyline Chili restaurant in there?).
posted by kinnakeet at 9:49 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Cincinnati had a zenith?
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:57 AM on August 11, 2010


Some other cool things I found: a presentation about the daguerreotypes from the library's then director in 1947, and a nifty viewer that lets you look at one of the plates up close from Wired, which also gives a description of the conservation process:
Fontayne and Porter were definitely skilled, but no one knew just how amazing their images were until three years ago, when conservators at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, began restoration work on the deteriorating plates. Magnifying glasses didn’t exhaust their detail; neither did an ultrasharp macro lens. Finally, the conservators deployed a stereo microscope. What they saw astonished them: The details — down to window curtains and wheel spokes — remained crisp even at 30X magnification. The panorama could be blown up to 170 by 20 feet without losing clarity; a digicam would have to record 140,000 megapixels per shot to match that. Under the microscope, the plates revealed a vanished world, the earliest known record of an urbanizing America.

But the conservators also found trouble. At that magnification, dust motes smaller than red blood cells became image-obscuring blobs. Corrosion from a few molecules of water obscured a face peeking out a window. Even polishing marks from the original preparation of the plates became a mass of dark streaks.

Trying to restore the plates themselves might have damaged the images, and the conservators didn’t want to risk ruining the finest American daguerreotypes in existence. So they put them in a case filled with inert argon gas to arrest the deterioration and went digital, turning to computer vision specialists at the University of Rochester. To them, the images were just noisy data, which they knew how to scrub.

Now Fontayne and Porter’s daguerreotypes are stabilized and its details restored — 21st-century technology rescued an image from the 19th.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:57 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow these are wonderful. I've seen a lot of drawings of my city, Pittsburgh, from that era that look very similar but no photos from that early as far as I know. Cincinnati looks like a pretty prosperous little city at that point. Sad to think almost none of those buildings in the pictures probably exist by now.
posted by octothorpe at 10:06 AM on August 11, 2010


So they put them in a case filled with inert argon gas to arrest the deterioration..

I cringed when I read the description of the case, made from masonite and plexiglass. Did these guys even consult archivalists? You never put masonite anywhere near materials you want to preserve, it outgasses corrosive vapors.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:38 AM on August 11, 2010


These are amazing—thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 11:12 AM on August 11, 2010


Here's a paper from The University of Rochester and The George Eastman House with details about the project: Digital Analysis and Restoration of Daguerreotypes. (.pdf)
posted by Floydd at 11:26 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great thread. I love to know about this sort of thing.
posted by KS at 11:54 AM on August 11, 2010


Sad to think almost none of those buildings in the pictures probably exist by now.

Christ Church, which is visible in the 3rd section of the panorama, is still on 4th St, where it has been since 1835. There are quite a few historic buildings from the early 1800s still in the area, especially on the Kentucky side of the river. Many of the buildings in this image are still here, as are these.

Not as high-quality as the daguerreotypes, but still interesting.
posted by tizzie at 12:37 PM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sad to think almost none of those buildings in the pictures probably exist by now. (octothorpe)

Yeah, tizzie's right. There are more than you'd think. I have noticed in many places that historic buildings tend to stick around long enough to be considered worth saving if there is economic decline fairly soon after they are built.

For example, I live in Harlem in New York City, which has an unusually large number of buildings from the original development of the neighborhood. Why? For many, many years, no one in the neighborhood was rich enough to build new ones, and for those that were owned by people who didn't live there (the majority, perhaps), there was no reason to invest in building new properties. The result is that the neighborhood is now full of gorgeous buildings that don't exist in such numbers elsewhere in the city (and which make it ripe for gentrification, for better or for worse).
posted by ocherdraco at 1:31 PM on August 11, 2010


Yeah, tizzie's right. There are more than you'd think.

Glad to hear that. Pittsburgh's got a lot of architecture left from just after that time period but not much from before then.
posted by octothorpe at 6:00 PM on August 11, 2010


This is neat!
posted by carter at 6:03 PM on August 11, 2010


awesome, thanks!
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:36 PM on August 11, 2010


I have noticed in many places that historic buildings tend to stick around long enough to be considered worth saving if there is economic decline fairly soon after they are built.

I was reading something the other day which put forward some research supporting the argument that if a building survives for 75 years without being demolished, it is likely to survive indefinitely, at least in the modern American urban environment. I believe there was a peak in "demolishing risk" between 30 and 50 years, IIRC.

I wish I could remember where the hell I saw this.
posted by jammer at 9:28 PM on August 11, 2010


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