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Saving our visual history

By Heather Kearney

Mike Robinson

Led by contemporary daguerreotypist Mike Robinson (top left), Ryerson researchers (clockwise from left) Chris Evans, Eric Da Silva, Darrick Heyd and Ana Pejović-Milić have discovered a new method of restoring daguerreotypes, a variation on electro-cleaning principles.

The digital camera has revolutionized photography. People are snapping photos everywhere and enjoying the results immediately. That’s a far cry from the long, complex process used in early photography in the mid 1800s when daguerreotypes were the order of the day. One of the earliest forms of photography, daguerreotypes are composed of silver image particles on a silver surface. They are delicate, unstable and not surprisingly, over time they tarnish. But their most significant property is that they are unique images without negatives. Since much of our visual record between 1840 and 1860 was captured using this process, today we are in danger of losing that cultural history. Fortunately, Ryerson researchers have discovered a new method of restoring daguerreotypes, a variation on electro-cleaning principles.

Mike Robinson, contemporary daguerreotypist and professor in Ryerson’s School of Image Arts in the Faculty of Communication & Design has been investigating daguerreotype conservation methods. To fully understand the impact various methods have on the images, he recruited a cross-disciplinary team at Ryerson: Drs. Chris Evans and Darrick Heyd, Department of Chemistry and Biology, Dr. Ana Pejović-Milić, Department of Physics and Molecular Science graduate student, Eric Da Silva, all from the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Science. Using a combination of new daguerreotypes, a scanning electron microscope and X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, the researchers have dispelled the conservation community’s current belief that all daguerreotypes have been treated with cyanide, thus creating the possibility for alternative restoration techniques.


A daguerreotype before and after electro-cleaning.

“These artifacts are historical documents. Without them we could lose a whole slice of history. That’s why it’s so important to study and develop conservation techniques,” said Prof. Robinson. “Including our study’s findings in the training of upcoming custodians of our photographic heritage, such as students in Ryerson’s Photographic Preservation and Collections Management program, will put them in a much better position to make preservation and conservation decisions down the road.”

The Photographic Preservation and Collections Management (PPCM) master’s program isn’t offered anywhere else in the world. The program examines the artistic perspective, including the social, cultural, and instrumental uses of photography, and also takes a scientific approach, including the study of the chemistry of photographic deterioration. This meeting of art and science inspired the collaborative approach to Professor Robinson’s study.

“One of the projects my PPCM students do is to corrode new daguerreotype samples,” said Dr. Evans. “Working with Mike on the class project, we discussed the electro-cleaning method and studied daguerreotypes under the microscope. As more techniques came on campus, we realized there were opportunities to explore things in more detail and we started seeking expertise from other colleagues that we didn’t have.”

Professor Robinson’s electro-cleaning method will be commercialized through the Ontario Partnership for Innovation and Commercialization (OPIC). He is the only contemporary daguerreotypist in Canada. Samples of his work and background information can be found at

Prof. Robinson’s research New daguerreotype conservation method: investigation of daguerreotype microstructure to evaluate the feasibility of a newly developed conservation treatment was produced with the help of OPIC. The collaborative research paper Monitoring the process of gilding, tarnishing and restoration of 21st century daguerreotypes by wavelength-dispersive X-ray fluorescence spectrometry led by graduate student Eric Da Silva and co-authored by Robinson, Ana Pejović-Milić, Chris Evans, ¬and Darrick Heyd will be presented at the European Conference on X-ray Spectrometry in Dubrovnik, Croatia in June, 2008.

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