The persistence of invented memory
Being a study of daguerreotypes, time, oblivion, and the poetics of beauty in the annihilated image
By Shaun Caton
Extract From 'Marius' by Lydia M. Child
"No change comes o'er thy noble brow,
Though ruin is around thee;
Thine eyebeam burns as proudly now
As when the laurel crowned thee.
And proud hope in the human heart
May be to ruin hurled,
Like mouldering monuments to art
Heaped on a sleeping world...
Godey's Lady's Magazine, Philadelphia 1846
Part One: Ghost(s) in the machine
In remembering through writing several amorphous dream sequences recently the nebulous images that surfaced clamouring for attention, I attempt to piece together a coherent picture that relates experiences of looking, dreaming and imagining abraded daguerreotypes simultaneously in the following fragment.
A daguerreotype slips inside its frame and becomes blemished or scratched. Anxiety over the destruction of a near perfect beauty. Sense of profound loss or mourning as if personally related to the subject in the daguerreotype. The image is a shard, fragment of metallic mirror in which I see my own distressed expression and the fading vapour of the occupant as an exiting phantom image. There are tramlines traversing the sensitive surface of the daguerreotype and I yearn to have it in its original perfect state.
Dream Diary extract 2005
A curious aesthetic compulsion to collect imperfect (daguerreotype) images defies the rationale of the collector as self-appointed connoisseur or shrewd investor. "Condition is everything..." so we are told, when looking to purchase daguerreotypes as speculative financial collateral. But how many of us are in a position financially to buy top of the range (as indicated by the vagaries of the fluctuating market place, the whims and oddities of online auctions such as eBay etc...) - goods from dealers and auction houses? The answer can probably be numbered on one or two scrupulously clean and manicured hands. To my mind the poetic allure of the destroyed image lies in its iconoclastic status as an object that bears the amorphous mappings and tracings of time and the deliberate interference(s) of successive custodial ownerships.
The interventions of unknown proprietorship were actions borne from a desire to restore the daguerreotype to a condition similar to its original state of perfection. Therefore, to fully appreciate and comprehend what makes someone search for the mutilated and spoiled daguerreotype one needs to examine closely the phenomenon of photogenic oblivion in daguerreotype image degradation. One should also ponder the saccharine and sentimental language of lost love through period poesy that typically exemplifies the themes of death and decay. Within this fusion of studies there exists the paradoxical interpretation of creation/destruction which gives meaning to these photographs somewhere outside of time.
Without the pecuniary framework or cultural incentive to collect irretrievably scratched daguerreotypes the reader may find cause for considerable consternation at this seemingly bizarre enterprise. From infancy we are brainwashed to appraise an occidental notion of art and pictorial representation as either, beautiful or ugly - or more fundamentally, good and bad. In applying this banal and limiting process of appraisal to daguerreotypes we are able to make ' selective ' choices based upon an enforced and blinkered education on the condition of things. Thus, imperfection is generally regarded as unrewarding and is not acknowledged as worthy of investment unless the item in question happens to be something very ' exceptional ' such as a whole plate outdoor scene. Then, it would seem, that despite thumbprints (operator's signatures?), wipes, and scattered tarnish the image is still desirable, simply because it is big and shows an exterior landscape. Enter here the concept of rarity to embolden and ballast this hypothesis and we have what is proverbially called in the trade as a ' winner '. There is surely some irony here? Clearly, what is deemed ruined by some, is sophisticated to an imaginative and illuminated other.
Daguerreotypes that have been grossly mishandled represent carelessness and even opportunistic stupidity in the face of an unremitting quest for exquisiteness and superiority. Of course, many daguerreotypes have flaws and we have no option but to accept and tolerate these problems otherwise there would be very few examples available for anyone to collect. It is in the inventory of catastrophe that we must elucidate a system for grading and categorising condition.
The following framework may give some cohesion to this strategy of evaluation: modest defects that are generally considered permissible are: mould spiders, dings (curious dents in the surface of a bent plate), tarnish, moderate wipes and scratches, partial discolouration of hand tinting and "weeping" glass syndrome.
Those which are strictly verboten are: huge wipes, hideous chemical stains and seepages, caustic attempts at the removal of tarnish, markings, gouges, and dendritic image destruction.
Indeed, some of these circumstances of condition may even be treated and remedied by professional conservationists whose impeccable and painstaking work can effectively improve the quality of an image. However, serious detrimental residue is normally understood to be akin to the most abstruse forms of graffiti in that it spoils what was once an appealing image. Perhaps we need to approach this subject having attempted at unlearning the bad habits of a lifetime's influences?
So, how can one entice interest in an image that has literally given up the ghost? Can such a possibility for relating to these impaired pictures be offered as an alternative visual aesthetic to that which was originally sublime? In an abstract sense can the beholder of the ancient mirror photograph inhabit its blackened and pock marked surface with any nostalgic sense of symbiosis or synasthesia? Such a premise may appear monstrously fantastic to a body conscious society which is principally obsessed with improving outward appearance through the employment of cosmetic surgery, radical dieting programmes and a spurious addiction to the booming therapy industry. Can we attribute such obtuse and superficial value systems to inanimate objects that completely exist as mementoes outside of our own somewhat fractured time frame?
Part Two: Iconoclasm - the haptic lexicon of anonymous traces
Religious paintings were defiled by iconoclasts who feared and despised the messages that icons emitted. These graven acts of vandalism rendered images slashed, scored, enucleated (eyes gouged out) and utterly defiled beyond recognition. The iconoclast sought to rape a Christian image with his own destructive vision of hatred. What remains to be seen is the rage and fanaticism of the perpetrators' wrath. Iconoclasm is the antithesis of spiritual creation and its anonymous exponents rained blows and violence onto images imbued with sacred symbolism. The savagery of this destruction of beauty is akin to a loss of innocence and a return to a primordial or atavistic state of being.
Possibly, these vicious attacks are a prelude to actual killings and massacres in our world filled with terrorist atrocities. Over centuries there have been many forms of iconoclasm both in sacred, profane and contemporary art. Incensed visitors to art galleries (modern cathedrals of the free thinking mind?) have deliberately attempted to destroy an artwork that offended or disturbed their inner space.
In photography this peculiar circumstance is less obvious and for the most part seemingly (although not entirely) unintentional. Detail could only be eradicated from a daguerreotype by rubbing with the intention of defacing an image. If a sitter was dissatisfied with his or her countenance upon the shining plate they could rub it out with a handkerchief, leaving a feint smudge of a simulacrum. Famously, Queen Victoria defaced her own likeness after a sitting at William Edward Kilburn's eminent London studio. The daguerreotype failed to amuse her Majesty and depicted the Queen with closed eyes. It received the regal thumb's down treatment. Of course, others could ostensibly have done this to remove someone who had fallen from grace, someone who was an unwelcome presence in the daguerreotype. A banished ghost.
What then, best defines this activity? It is perhaps born from a Christian compulsion to remove unsightly blemishes from an image that reminds one of fecality and bodily decay? To rejuvenate a tarnished daguerreotype thus restoring its clarity and fascination as a treasured personal icon, the practice of cleaning the plate in (holy?) water and rubbing it with (news) paper was thought to disperse the blue haze or "blueing" as it was colloquially termed in mid-late Victorian times. If this operation were performed very delicately in a tank of water with the daguerreotype plate submerged it would not incur detrimental effects.
Modern conservationists have discussed this method with me as a successful means of eradicating dust particles and surface detritus by the application of a fine sable brush under the (de-ionised or distilled) water and in direct contact with the plate. If however, dry bristles come into contact with the daguerreotypes' incredibly sensitive surface this will cause irreversible damage. Our forebears were utterly ignorant of the consequences of chemically treating the daguerreotype and often employed various solvents to remove a layer of tarnish, the knock on effect of this action was to reduce the silver amalgam content of the plate. The after result was a milky effulgence and spotting that appeared on the plate directly or relatively soon after washing and repackaging.
Curiously, the re-emergence of tarnish even blacker than the layer that preceded it is also a known longer term side effect of employing the harshest silver cleaners or contaminated solvent solutions. Is this not then the daguerreotype's allegorical mourning veil? Sometimes too, this reminds me of a phantasmagorical presence within the image: a spirit cloud, vapour or luminous spectral mist encapsulates or engulfs the subject ( see plates ). One is beguiled by the way in which the sitters vanish into this fog of unknowing. As if they themselves are sucked into the void at the moment of their photochemical death. The haze seems to emanate from them, finally reminding us that folly and the passage of time removes most things. What we are left with are remnants, misshapen and distorted figures that were once recognisable yet have now become indistinguishable more or less.
Such disfigurations are graphically reminiscent of the English 20th Century painter, Francis Bacon (1909-1992). With such calamitous cleaning treatments images are thus transformed into the shattered sentiments of what they once meant. Muted utterances emanating from mouths paralysed by eternal sleep. Rubbing with rags or cloths also contributed to the loss in image definition as can be evinced in the following illustrated plates.
Wipes, as they are habitually known, are traces and trails of an incessant desire to expunge blotches on the surface of the daguerreotype. Scouring motions of the hand are visible as vortices and spirals whirling across the daguerreotype's frangible surface. Here the calico rag is skating on their (subjects) dead eyes in spider-like needles of unfurling revelry. These indelible movements are a tragic paradox of the dictum, cleanliness is next to godliness. Friction and fibres deposit fissures and hairline pulsations that mimic the spasmodic jerkiness of the hand. It is at this point that we are imagining a disappearance -erasure. A gradual withdrawal from the world of the trace into the oblique souvenir of the expunged dead.
One is possibly drawn to accumulate images on the edge of vanishing from a sense of artistic magnetism. We know the subject in the picture is long dead and disintegrated yet their likeness lives on, albeit as a much altered photographic memorial. There is a terrible fascination in something which is disfigured: the amputee sculptures of classical antiquity, crackled lunar surface of the jaundiced Mona Lisa etc... all hold a powerful metaphorical allusion in our own perception of mortality. Moreover, there is a compassionate fondness and curiosity for the daguerreotype as our first photographic record of the human face that is capable of transcending the horror of extinction and neglect.
As collectors we are compelled to amass, scrutinise, and perpetually acquire more of the same. In essence we touch the past we never knew, a past we can only dream about. In doing this we save the past (in fragment) from the figment of the future. Very few daguerreotypes have not been cleaned or tampered with in some shape or form and many have had their original crumbling paper seals replaced. Silver cleaning solutions have varied considerably since their invention and introduction in the late 19th century. Daguerreotypes cleaned with a liquid form of cyanide exude a cloudiness that is highly distinctive.
With the production of thiourea in the early 1950's (silver dip) daguerreotypes were bathed in their thousands in an attempt to dissolve the build up of tarnish on the image surface. Tarnish it is understood, is produced over an extended time period by air born pollutants in the form of silver sulphide that enters the delicate microclimate of the daguerreotype's split paper packaging. The recognisable blue-brown colouration of the tarnish depends also upon levels of humidity (which can also cause weeping glass syndrome to form bubbles of an oily residue that accumulate on the underside of the cover glass) and exposure to noxious gases, acidity from paper and cardboard and the structure of the plate's delicate chemistry itself are also contributing factors in the gradual build up of tarnish.
A typical band or halo of tarnish will have a broad perimeter of cobalt blue (electric blue I prefer to call it) encircling the image in wavering concentric spirals as it spreads outwards from the cover mat edge, and will usually form several tremulous rings of grey, umber, beige and a pallid orange. Finally it is a black deposit, rather like soot that gradually obliterates the image rendering it obscure. It is generally accepted by conservationists that fluorescing tarnish is made up of silver and copper accretions. Of course, tarnish can also add colour to daguerreotypes and act as a natural vignette that holds its own innate beauty.
Copper salts bursting through the silver amalgam cause unsightly suppurating perforations to appear on the daguerreotype's surface. These eruptions are microscopically granular, crystalline structures that have a particular bright verdant aspect to them. Upon magnification they resemble blisters of sphagnum lending the image the semblance of having contracted a green fungal pox.
The reproduced daguerreotypes that ensue display many of the hallmarks of untutored cleaning and long term storage problems. They were purchased for relatively insignificant amounts within a short and intensive duration. Some questioned my motives for putting together a gallery of imperfections and anomalies. As casualties of short-lived curiosity these daguerreotypes are truly strange images suggestive of the supernatural qualities I have touched upon in some of my previous essays. I have written some impressions specifically for each image by means of examination and interpretation. Rather than as an excuse to justify the impairment of these images I am seeking through my own sensibilities some new form of aesthetic appreciation and elucidation.
Gallery of disfigured daguerreotypes
Eyes and Tears (extract)
What in the world most fair appears,
Yea even laughter, turns to tears:
And all the jewels which we prize,
Melt in these pendants of the Eyes.
So the all-seeing sun each day
Distills the world with Chymick Ray;
But finds the Essence only showers,
Which straight in pity back he powers.
Andrew Marvell (1621-78)
Figure 1. 9th plate American Daguerreotype of a Young Woman circa 1850.
The forlorn image of a young female has lost most of its tonality owing to several attempts at cleaning. The uncased daguerreotype evinces tarnish build up at the edges of the plate and scorings that criss-cross the sitter's face and obliterates her left eye completely. The scratches are commensurate with the image having survived outside of its case, where it has been manipulated inconsiderately.
Figure 2. 6th plate Daguerreotype of a Young Man circa late 1840's.
This daguerreotype was found at the bottom of a box of paper photographs at a Trade Fair. Again, it came uncased and reveals all the hallmarks of repeated attempts at cleaning. There are eight orbs or blobs that cover the middle of the image and appear to float across the sitter's body these may be the residual trace droplets of a caustic cleaning fluid after it had dispersed or evaporated. There is an enormous wipe that travels across the cheek, throat and chest of the subject. Around the perimeter of the clipped plate there is a grey haze where tarnish once accumulated. The plate is not manufactured from copper but is crudely cut from a tin sheet. Remarkably the handsome features of the man still peer out at us despite the appalling condition of this image - it continues to provoke intriguing questions.
Figure 3. 6th plate American Daguerreotype of a Lady wearing a long chain, circa 1845-50.
The demure sitter in this image is submerged beneath a mist of blue-white effulgence. Chemical spotting and stains cover much of the woman's face reminiscent of smallpox or dreadful acne. The contrast only appears to have partially remained on her head and collar, yet this too has turned an imbalanced burnished sepia tone. When tilted at different angles the image vanishes beneath a dense fog only to become visible again when side lit by a table lamp.
Figure 4. Oversize 9th plate (7.8 X 5.6 cm) American Daguerreotype of two standing women circa 1845.
The entire plate has rubs and thumbprints running across its surface. The girl on the left is almost obliterated. One can see a fan clasped in her hands, a large oval of oxidisation encircles her rather like a wide cover mat. Mat abrasions, lacerations, and chemical immersions have all but removed this image from the ravages of history. The two spectres inhabit a lost world of eradicated beauty and persist in our imagination as a feint reminder of a life that was.
Figure 5. 6th plate American Daguerreotype of a young seated boy with a book circa mid 1840's.
This plate has a peculiar lambent glow to it when held under a spotlight. The boy's face and upper torso are covered by a nebulous chemical haze. Curiously his face maintains some hint of its former tonality and his penetrating gaze fills us with unease. When examined in daylight the cloud seems to disperse and the figure of the boy returns with momentary powerful clarity to tantalise us.
Figure 6. 9th plate American Daguerreotype of a young boy circa mid 1840's.
The image has almost become lost. Tarnish is scattered across the surface of the plate which is streaked with hairline scratches and speckles. Only the boy's face remains vaguely discernible through the murk. The daguerreotype emanates a profound sadness and is now a meditation upon the fragility of life.
Figure 7. ¼ plate tinted English Daguerreotype by William Edward Kilburn (1819-91) of a girl with a donkey 1851.
This once ravishingly tinted daguerreotype has clouded over and developed mould spiders that criss cross the surface of the image in unsightly growths. Kilburn has covered the studio floor with straw and a little girl (tinted in blue) stands beside a bowed donkey. She holds a riding crop and peers out at us from her flaking painted face - a little phantom child with her favourite pet? In the background one can discern the familiar cerulean Kilburn cloudscape that simulates the idyll of outdoors and hides the ghastly smog that besieged London at the height of the industrial revolution. The image portrays childhood innocence and a very English preoccupation with pets. Such images are extremely unusual and exceptional. The daguerreotype was originally displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and received much favourable comment. It is discussed in some detail in The Illustrated London News (edition7th June 1851). Much of the image is occluded by tarnish and where the pigment has broken up to form a powdery veil, it has become hazy and indistinct. The original cover glass was filthy and so I cleaned and replaced it, yet strangely the image seems to have darkened - or could this just be my imagination running riot?! Despite the flaws this image is still very desirable and rare. With its important historical provenance it remains enigmatic and a work of art by one of England's finest Daguerreian artists.
Copyright C. Shaun Caton 2005. All rights reserved.
||About the author
Shaun is an internationally known writer, curator and collector of daguerreotypes who has written extensively in journals and magazines throughout the World on daguerreotypes.
His highly original style of writing makes for engaging and informative reading.
All rights for this article and the beautiful images remain with Shaun.