Bringing back the mid 19th Century at the University of Rochester. Nanotechnology meets local history

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Photo: Mark Osterman

Walking into Mark Osterman ‘s very 19th century looking studio, one expects Edgar Allen Poe to be posing for a daguerreotypist somewhere in Baltimore in the 1840s. Poe surely would have done better than this stiff looking subject half expecting a selfie and wearing the wrong socks and shoes. I can see Edgar, playing the casual southern gentleman at leisure. A glint in his eye, diagnosing the scene with a purloined letter and a murder on the Rue in mind.pratt-poe1

In preparation for a tour of  “Researching the Daguerreotype at the University of Rochester: Nanotechnology Meets Local History” in the Friedlander Lobby of the Rush Rees Library, Mark kindly invited me to his home/skylit studio. I was to imaginatively experience 19th century daguerreotyping from the perspective of subject and photographer. Mark is the Photographic Process Historian at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. And, he and his wife France Scully offer Historic and Alternative Process private tutorials

First, I learned that the camera (on table below my arm) is not giant-sized but closer to a shoe box.  Nor does one sit for hours –a common misconception. The whole thing takes, as Mark says, about three (tell tale) heart beats.

And no plastered smile. When the daguerreotype was its heyday, people equated it with paint portraiture. The pose should be natural–even for an unnatural guy like Poe–the countenance pleasant, limbs relaxed.

If you saw the first takes, I think Mark did a fine job. As he coaxed a half-way decent pose, I imagined legions of small town daguerreotypists guiding timid farmers on their a once a year visit.  (To top off the afternoon, Mark also added a spin in his 1919 automobile he drives regularly to the Eastman House. Swinging around the Rockingham/Meigs area, I channeled not Poe, but felt a little like Nick Carroway at Gatsby’s side.)

Here, there’s no need to exhaustively review the exhibit. Instead, see Nanotechnology Meets local history  Better yet, go to the Friedlander Lobby yourself.

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from “Researching the Daguerreotype at the University of Rochester: Nanotechnology Meets Local History”

Nor do I want to get the physics and optics wrong. But, as explained to us at the tour and in this evening’s talk by two University of Rochester scientists, Nicholas Bigelow, Lee A. DuBridge Professor of Physics, and Ralph Wiegandt, visiting research scientist and conservator, daguerreotypists were really doing nanoscience before people even knew what atoms were. In many ways, the daguerreotype was the first truly engineered nanotechnology.

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myself and President Seligman. In the case behind is a daguerreotype recently taken of him by Irving Pobbaravsky [Photo: Katy Festa 12/14/15]

Fundamentally–as discussed by President Joel Seligman in his introduction–Bigelow and Wiegandt’s research works to bridge the gap between the sciences (nanotechnology) and the humanities (history and aesthetics). As Wiegandt told me, the daguerreotype is the only cultural artifact he knows that is defined literally at its nanostructural level. Nanotechnolgy uncovering secrets of the daguerreotype uncovers secrets of nanotechnolgy.

The Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History  in me wonders, what will this mean for the study of the mid 19th century as the daguerreotype was radically reshaping visual imagination? Ultimately, the promise of nanotechnology is not only to preserve and conserve daguerreotypes but to actually restore them to their original condition. The promise of closed windows in the past opening.

As Bigelow explained, the vast majority of daguerreotype were made as portraits in carefully controlled studio settings. Bringing more back to life will perhaps only yield more of what we already know. However, some daguerreotypes, now degraded often beyond recognition, were taken for different purposes.  The first image of the moon was a daguerreotype. And daguerreotypes were brought to the US-Canadian border to aid in resolving a territorial dispute. And some of the first daguerreotypes were illicit: the timeless fascination with eroticism and pornography.

At the same time, learning more about those studio portraits can bring significant discoveries.  For example, nanotechnology can help us date and place daguerreotypes of Frederick Douglass, shedding light on Douglass’ careful self-fashioning of his own biography that infused his abolitionist rhetoric. And if we can restore daguerreotypes of Douglass at public events, we learn about the demographics of his supporters and detractors.

In twenty years, the next daguerreotype exhibit in the Friedlander lobby will be that much more fascinating.

Part of me believes that the unlikely emergence of the daguerreotype, so anomolous and unexpected in 1839, occupies aspecial place in “quantum leaps” of human ingenuity, precisely because it touches on so many aspects of the human experience and its particular order in the historical timeline.

— Ralph Wiegandt, 12/15/15

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