The Cincinnati Daguerreotypes of 1848

In 1848, Charles Fontayne and William Porter photographed two miles of the newly industrializing Cincinnati waterfront in a series of Daguerreotypes, which was an early image-making technology developed by Louis Daguerre in the 1830s with Nicéphore Niépce — the latter a remarkable figure in his own right, who is credited with inventing the world’s first internal combustion engine and was taking photographs (see below) as far back as the 1820s.  Daguerreotypes use copper plates coated in silver halide that, once exposed, interact with mercury to create ethereal images that are visible looking head on but disappear when viewed at an angle.  The surface of a Daguerreotype is fragile and easily scratched, the process complicated, and the exposure times very long so the technology was eventually surpassed but the images preserved are of exceptionally high detail.

Just how detailed is revealed by the interactive scans of the Fontayne and Porter Daguerreotypes put online by the Cincinnati Public Library, though I find the magnifying function in the Wired magazine article about those Daguerreotypes easier to use.  These images capture an America in the early stages of industrialization and soon to descend into civil war but, as the screenshot above shows, even from the other side of the river it is possible to read the painted advertising on the facade of a warehouse, or the hands on a clocktower, or the outline of people if they did not move during the duration of the exposure.  So go, explore, and let me know what you find.


Click here to read about the extraordinary color photographs of Russia from 1911.  Or here to see color photographs of the Great Depression, a moment we most often remember in black and white.  Or here to read how my journey to Beirut ended up as photographs on a gallery wall.


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