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.
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