Images from the 19th century thought to have been lost forever are now able to be recovered using the Canadian Light Source (CLS).
Two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit were thought to be no longer visible due to tarnish and other damage.
Researchers used the synchrotron, located in Saskatoon, to recover the images from daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography that used silver plates.
They were able to retrieve an image of a man and a woman.
“It’s somewhat haunting because they are anonymous and yet striking at the same time,” said Madalena Kozachuk, the lead author of a research paper published in Scientific Reports.
“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time,” she continued.
“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.”
Team members had previously identified the chemical composition of the tarnish and how it varied over the daguerreotype.
Ian Coulthard, a senior scientist at the CLS, said that allowed them to then compare the extent of the degradation across the daguerreotype.
“We compared the degradation that looked like corrosion versus a cloudiness from the residue from products used during the rinsing of the photographs versus degradation from the cover glass,” Coulthard explained.
“When you look at these degraded photographs, you don’t see one type of degradation.”
Researchers then used a rapid-scanning micro-X-ray to analyze the plates, with each scan taking eight hours.
Daguerreotype images were invented in 1839 using a highly polished silver-coated copper plate that was sensitive to light.
Kozachuk will be continuing her research in improving how daguerreotype images are recovered when cleaning is possible and to see what is below the tarnish if cleaning is not possible.
It is estimated there are thousands of daguerreotype images created over a 20-year period in the 19th century, which if recovered can add to the historical record of that period.