Researchers Just Recovered Fragile Images From The 19th Century


The centuries-old images degraded over time can now be uncovered with the help of scientists and tiny X-ray beams. Believed impossible to reveal, two photographs taken back in 1850 involving daguerreotypes have been uncovered. One of them shows a woman, and the other one a man. Both images could only show a few traces, hidden by time.

Lead author Madalena Kozachuk from Western University said that the silver plate that was used to take the photograph has no image on it:

“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time. But then we see it and we can see such fine details: the eyes, the folds of the clothing, the detailed embroidered patterns of the table cloth.”

Traces of Mercury Helped Revealing Centuries-Old Photographs

The daguerreotype was the first method accessible to the public for taking photographs. Subjects had to pose for 2-3 minutes and stay still until the image appeared on the plate. Then, the image would have been developed as a photo using mercury vapor. If exposed to air, the plates easily tarnish.

After years of research in finding more about the damages of daguerreotypes due to chemical changes, scientists identified the types of degradation and found a way to restore the degraded images. Kozachuk and her team used rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence to detect the traces of mercury on the plates.

The coauthor of the study, Tsun-Kong said that image particles remain on the plate, even if the surface is tarnished and that “by looking at the mercury, we can retrieve the image in great detail.”

McElhone, coauthor of the study, added that by understanding how chemicals are arranged on the surface of the plates, it could give them “access to theories about how degradation happens and how that degradation can possibly or possibly not be reversed.”


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