Sergeant Smith Prentiss?, Degraded Daguerrotype, Mathew Brady, Poster
This 10 x 10 poster is a print of a decayed daguerrotype portrait that might be Sergeant Prentiss Smith, taken between 1844 and 1860 in Mathew Brady's New York City studio.
This version is printed in USA on museum-quality, archival, acid-free matte paper — 10.3 mil, 192 grams per square inch — with an opacity of 94% and ISO brightness of 104%.
Mathew Brady was a pioneering photographer best known for his portraits of celebrities and his documentation of the American Civil War. He did a brisk trade in daguerrotypes, which were the earliest photographs easily and affordably available to the public.
Since daguerreotype images are on a mirror-like surface, depending on the light and the angle at which they are being viewed they can seem to float in space like a hologram. And, as we see below, daguerrotypes are also a nanotechnology of interest to scientists because of their properties of decay.
Sergeant Prentiss Smith
Sergeant Prentiss Smith was a one-term Whig representative to the U.S. Congress for Mississippi in 1838-39. He was known as a great orator and reportedly could ad-lib for hours while the audience begged for more. Unfortunately, his real estate dealings, which made him one of the richest men in Mississippi, made reelection impossible.
Mathew Brady's Portrait Studio
Mathew Brady had tons of charisma and knew how to set his customers at ease, not always simple when the technology is new and scary and your head’s maybe in a vise (to keep it still during long exposures in low light).
In an interesting article, Mathew Brady and the Daguerrotype Portrait, Claire McRee writes in detail about Mathew's New York City portrait studio:
Brady’s customer would wait to receive his or her finished portrait. Directly before the exposure, a silver-coated photographic plate would have been made light sensitive through the application of iodine vapors. After the photograph was taken, the plate would be delivered from the operating room to hidden workrooms; the customer never saw any part of the image production process.
Workers treated the plate with mercury vapors to develop the image and then fixed the image by removing the last of the photosensitive salts in a chemical bath. To prevent damage to the fragile image, daguerreotypes would be sealed in small cases with a protective glass cover. This finished product would be delivered to the customer within an hour of the portrait session.
Degraded Daguerrotypes and Nanoparticle Research
Daguerrotypes are very fragile, easily damaged by dust and scratches, as well as by friction or deterioration of the very glass cover supposed to protect them.
These days, researchers studying daguerreotype decay under a $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation have discovered that the surfaces of daguerrotypes are biologically active, with colonies of fungi interacting with the daguerrotypes despite the silver in them. Brian McIntyre, a senior engineer at the Institute of Optics, says it’s an astonishing discovery, “almost like finding life on Mars”.
So something strange is going on. Who knew that the photographic process discovered by Louis Daguerre in 1837 would turn out to be nanotechnology? The silver and gold on the daguerrotype's surface have unique nano properties — and they are degrading at an ever-increasing rate as scientists scramble to learn why.
In a fascinating article in the Rochester Review, "A Vanishing Past? Can science save the daguerrotype, the first successful medium of photography?" Kathleen McGarvey quotes photo conservator Ralph Wiegandt: "The daguerreotype, probably as much as any single object I can think of, is actually an environmental sensor, so it will record, with extremely high sensitivity, events that have occurred to it."
The original of this daguerrotype is in the Library of Congress.
You can see hundreds of daguerrotypes, degraded and not, on the Library of Congress website.
For decayed daguerrotypes, check out the Public Domain Review's selection.