X-ray Beam Illuminates Long-Forgotten Faces on Damaged Daguerreotypes

Anyone who wishes to restore or repair old photographs has a new tool available for use. As long as it is a Daguerreotype, experts at the Canadian Light Source, a high-energy X-ray facility in Saskatchewan, have discovered how to restore important details from daguerreotypes that have been written off as beyond recovery.

On the left is the image as it appears to the eye. On the right is the X-ray scan that reveals where mercury was deposited on the metal plate when the daguerreotype was originally produced.

The results are impressive. Madalena Kozachuk, a doctorate student in chemistry at the University of Western Ontario in London, was able to use X-ray beams to map out the distribution of copper, silver, gold and iron on the two plates. She then wanted to see whether she could detect mercury on the plates, but a beam with sufficient energy was not then available at the Saskatchewan facility. To complete her investigation, Ms. Kozachuk travelled to another synchrotron at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. It was there that the glowing atoms of mercury revealed the images on the plates in exquisite detail, astounding the researchers.

You can read more in an article by Ivan Semeniuk in The Globe and Mail web site at: https://tgam.ca/2Ka7TyC.

My thanks to newsletter reader Russ McGillivray for telling me about this story.

7 Comments

Outstanding! Never underestimate the power of curiosity combined with science.

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One thing that would have been interesting to see would have been the cost per image recovered. I expect that few organisations/individuals would have the resources to purchase their own synchrotron, but it might be a service that research facilities could offer as a sideline.
Initially I am sure that the unit cost will be high, but as the technology matures hopefully this will become more affordable.
The newly revealed image shown above is in monochrome, but the original appears to be in colour which suggests a date post 1855.
As the different elements fluoresce at different frequencies, theoretically it should be possible in time to extract the full colour image – though this would no doubt substantially increase the costs
We already use a similar technique to peer beneath the top layer of paint on artworks to see how the painter developed the image – as well as to authenticate/disprove attribution of the work (the composition of paints evolved over time and so would react differently to x-ray analysis).
And – looking further ahead – why stop at daguerrotypes? As all physical images are chemically based and so should react in the same way, will we in time be able to restore more forms of image?
And once you have a digital copy of the base image, image processing software could take care of defects in the original.

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An interesting article and process. I have inherited a very large Daguerreotype picture or tin photo that sadly has no name on it. I inherited it with other family history items as I have continued with the research. I have often looked at the photo (which is in better condition than the one Ms Kozachuk used) and first wondered “who” followed by curiously wondering when and where it was taken and why.

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Reminds me of Forensic Files on television. They’ll probably use this method or something like it to solve a crime sometime!

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I’ve been waiting for this technology for decades! Is it available commercially? I was surprised to see colour on a Daguerreotype.

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Wonderful news. There are probably thousands of old daguerreotypes that could benefit from this procedure. Any plans to make this restoration process available to the general public in the near future?

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Take a good look at Gary Clark’s Phototree.com site for great tips on dating photos by the technology used to create them. I rely heavily on his website and his books for photo analysis for both my own collection and at the Library where I volunteer.

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