Nearly thirty years ago I bought at a flea market some half-dozen or so images, billed as daguerreotypes, encased in ornate leather-covered hinged boxes.At the time, I barely knew what they were; I recall buying them mostly because I had just opened my first checking account, and writing checks seemed cool and fun. I had some money burning a hole in my, er, account. Well, into a box they went, to follow me through three decades and a dozen different addresses. From time to time I’d take them out, resolve to have them restored, box them up, and forget about them for another decade or so.
Well, time now for my decennial re-look, and a more mature reconsideration—I hope! Their current storage vessel is a Rubbermaid shoe container. (I don’t want to think about what daguerreotype-unfriendly stuff might be outgassing from a one-dollar plastic container!) First of all: they are not all daguerreotypes! At least one is a tintype (I think), and one is possibly an ambrotype. The tipoff is that those two lack the mirror-finished surface and negative image one sees in a dag when it is held at various angles to the light. As those two newer photographic processes began to supplant the costlier, older daguerreian process, custom nonetheless dictated that they would be displayed in daguerreotype cases just like their upper-class cousins. For being different, and of cheaper provenance, the images are no less beautiful in their own way.
The daguerreotype process itself is explained in detail in the wikipedia article linked above. The images are one-off photographs made on copper sheets plated with a highly polished layer of metallic silver. The silver is made light sensitive by exposure (“fuming”) to iodine and/or bromine vapors; after exposure, the image is developed by fuming with highly toxic mercury vapor. It is then “fixed”, and toned in gold chloride solution to enhance image contrast and longevity, and the finished image placed in its protective case. These images are unsurpassed in their ability to render detail, and in their delicate beauty. Protected from physical harm, the images are quite stable over time; but the image surface is extremely fragile. The slightest touch can destroy the image.
As for my images—regardless of species, all are in disrepair. The cover glasses are filthy; the dags themselves covered with tarnish and crud; their cases worn, their leather or cloth hinges destroyed. I had forgotten that some fool at some point replaced those hinges, with **GULP!** duct tape! Not exactly archival and acid free, that glue. The images themselves, however—as best I can divine their state through the strata of filth—look in surprisingly good shape. If they’ve never been unsealed or subjected to ham-fisted amateur restoration attempts, they may clean up beautifully.
Thank goodness for the web for stuff like this. A minute’s googling turned up several sites with information relating to daguerreotype restoration. First, there are some places that can do it for you professionally, though at considerable cost. This might make sense if the dags themselves were highly valuable; I’m not knowledgeable enough to know if that’s true of the ones I own. As for the cases, very fine replica replacements are made today—for a few hundred dollars (!) each. At that price, I will likely satisfy myself with merely replacing their hinges with archival material available from the Daguerreian Society.
As for the images themselves, it’s not clear to me what even professional restorers can do besides soaking the images in distilled water to dissolve the worst crud, and letting them air dry. The surface of the images is so delicate that even the pros are reluctant to undertake any sort of physical cleaning except in the absolute worst cases; it’s hard to see how anyone could hand-scrub the stuff off of them without causing irreparable damage. At one time, I read an article about using a bath of thiourea to remove tarnish; this method has since been discredited as harmful to the long-term stability of the images. And while I am aware that there are newer, electrochemical means to remove the tarnish, I have not been able to uncover much specific information about this except that it is laborious, and costly, and thus reserved for dags with the greatest historical value. I suppose if one found a hitherto undiscovered dag portrait of, say, Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis or some similar personage, that might qualify!
So the ordinary restoration process appears to consist largely of removing the dag “sandwich”—the image plate itself, the cover glass, and an interposimatte sheet that prevents cover-glass contact with the dag’s surface—from its case; cutting the tape that seals the sandwich by the edges; immersion in distilled water for a soak, followed by air drying; and replacement of the cover glass with a new, cleaned glass. I’ve found detailed online instructions how to do this. The chance for mischief seems minimal as long as one does not touch the daguerreotype’s surface.
My inner do-it-yourselfer is, as is frequently the case, at war with my prudent counsels of wisdom. I gotta think more about whether I want to take on this seemingly simple job, at the risk of destroying a one-of-a-kind, 150-year-old image.