The Duality of a Daguerreotype
19 December 2016
By Rachel Maloney
Working as a digitisation technician within the Centre for German Jewish Studies Archives is a fascinating role that has given me access to many interesting and sometimes challenging objects that require digitisation. I have documented photographs, paintings, letters, passports, marriage certificates, World War I medals, and even a pressed edelweiss flower. However, when I came across several daguerreotypes within the Elton/Ehrenberg collection I knew I had found something special. It was the first time I had seen or held a daguerreotype and there was one in particular that struck me. It was an image of a young woman with neat dark hair, a vase of flowers by her side, looking out of the frame with an intense and powerful stare. Who was she? Julie Fischel was scrawled on the back in faded pencil.
I wanted to find out more about Julie Fischel but I also wanted to effectively digitise this rare and amazing object. Looking at a daguerreotype is unlike looking at any other type of photograph, it is an intimate thing- you have to hold it in your hands and manoeuvre it in the light to really see it and understand it as an object.
The daguerreotype: What is it?
In 1839 the Daguerreotype became the first commercially available photographic process, yet they took time and precision to create so would have been considered a great luxury. Every daguerreotype is a unique object, an image captured and fixed on a silvered metal plate. The daguerreotype plate was polished until it became highly reflective, then iodine fumes were used to form a light sensitive surface of silver iodine on its surface. The plate would be kept in a light tight holder until it was exposed within the camera, then it was developed in a mercury bath to ‘bring out the image’, and finally the image was fixed using a solution of sodium thiosulphate. When this process was complete the daguerreotype would be placed in an ornate casing behind glass to protect it from damage, bestowing it with a
precious keepsake quality. Unlike a photograph printed onto paper the daguerreotype is not a reproduction created from a negative – it is a one off and unique object that carries an indexical link to the person or place it represents. The image appears to float above the surface of the plate giving all daguerreotypes a haunting and eerie quality.
Daguerreotypes are highly reflective and act like a mirror so you often see yourself being reflected back when you look at them.
It is difficult to describe what a daguerreotype really looks like because it constantly changes depending on how the light hits its surface, at one moment the image is positive, turn it slightly and the image becomes a negative. It is a thing of duality; both positive and negative, heavy yet fragile, its image both visible and invisible depending on the angle of light. So how can you reproduce or digitise an object that is reflective in nature and which involves a dynamic process of seeing?
The final digitised version of the daguerreotype of Julie Ehrenberg was taken using an Icam Guardian archive system with an attached overhead camera that is directly parallel above the object being digitised. This minimises reflection on the object and also controls any distortion that could occur if the camera were positioned at an angle or the object and camera were not parallel to each other. The two fluorescent strip-lights on the Guardian system have been positioned to the side of the daguerreotype so that the light hits it at a 45 degree angle, eliminating any reflections. The resulting digitised image contains no distracting reflections and shows the daguerreotype as a positive image with all its fine detail and intricacy.
This is a successful image for digitisation purposes but it isn’t obvious that the image is of a daguerreotype- it could easily be a reproduction of a traditional photograph. So how can we accurately represent objects for digitisation when they change under light, are dynamic or 3D in structure? What should a digitised image do? Should they offer information clearly i.e. legible text, clear image reproduction? Or should they relay a little more about the nature of the objects held in museums and archives? These are just a few of the intriguing questions and considerations that digitisation within archive collections can bring. If you would like to share your thought on this topic, or would like to know more, please email me at: R.Maloney@sussex.ac.uk
If you would like to find out more about the Elton/Ehrenberg collection, you can access the catalogue here: http://www.thekeep.info/collections/getrecord/GB181_SxMs96
And keep your eyes peeled for our next blog post to find out more about Julie Ehrenberg!
Rachel Maloney, Archive Technician for the German Jewish Collection housed at the Keep. December 2016.