Preserving history with a high-tech lens

Western researcher Madalena Kozachuk is bringing 200-year-old ghosts back to life.

The Western PhD student and a team of interdisciplinary researchers have together developed a novel and non-invasive way to recover ‘vanished’ images from the earliest historical photos. Kozachuk, a PhD student in Western’s Department of Chemistry, is lead author of a newly published paper in the journal Scientific Reports – Nature that describes how they have analyzed the chemical elements of 19th-Century images on daguerreotypes, the first commercially available photographs.

Two plates provided at random by the National Gallery of Canada couldn’t even be identified as having photographic images – until Kozachuk’s process of mapping their mercury content with rapid-scanning, synchrotron-based micro-X-rays recovered their features.

The man and woman re-appeared in remarkable detail. The identities of both are unknown.

“It’s somewhat haunting  because they are anonymous and yet it is striking at the same time,” said Kozachuk.

“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time,” she said. “But then we see it and we can see such fine details: the eyes, the folds of the clothing, the detailed embroidered patterns of the tablecloth.”

The process, she said, could transform hundreds of images that have vanished from history.

The daguerreotype is a singular image on a silvered copper plate which, in contrast to photographic paper, is not flexible. Though very fragile, the mirror-like surface of the plate allowed for accurate, detailed and sharp images.

Each image is delicate and unique, Kozachuk said, and each requires individual and specific needs when it comes to preservation.

“When conserving a piece of artwork, you must analyze it first to determine what the composition is and then apply what it is you need to use (to restore or preserve it),” said Kozachuk, who is working to preserve daguerreotypes with the Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

To determine the chemical makeup of the daguerreotype, your everyday microscope isn’t going to do the trick. Enter the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon, which houses Canada’s only synchrotron-based research facility. A synchrotron is a source of brilliant light that scientists can use to gather information about the structural and chemical properties of materials at the molecular level.

“(With a synchrotron), we can get a further understanding of (daguerreotype) chemistry. Even though it was the first known photography, it is still not fully understood,” said Kozachuk. “There are differing opinions on how they have been produced, how to conserve them, and it’s tricky because not all daguerreotyping is the same. Daguerreotists had their own recipes and the chemicals they used varied.”

One of the techniques the synchrotron enables is the collection of high-quality two-dimensional elemental maps, which show the distribution of chemical elements on the surface. Even more detailed information can be revealed by analyzing a single pixel in the image to further understand how elements are bonded on the surface.

The application of this non-destructive, non-invasive, and non-contact analytical method provides a full chemical profile of the daguerreotype surface, equipping conservators with knowledge to develop preservation methods.

While there may be thousands in existence, daguerreotypes don’t have duplicates. If they’re destroyed, they’re gone forever. Kozachuk contacted the National Gallery of Canada and saw the need, and the niche, for daguerreotype preservations. It proved a great opportunity for partnership.

Madalena Kozachuk, a PhD student at Western, is working to preserve 19th Century artifacts by analyzing the chemical elements of daguerreotypes, the first commercially available photographs, which date back to the early 1840s.

Paul Mayne // Western NewsMadalena Kozachuk, a PhD student at Western, is working to preserve 19th Century artifacts by analyzing the chemical elements of daguerreotypes, the first commercially available photographs, which date back to the early 1840s.

“Every time I put one in the synchrotron, it’s so exciting,” she said. “It’s nerve-wracking, as well, because you don’t want to mess up. I feel so grateful they trust me with this and I’m not established yet. It’s such a win-win. I get a PhD out of it and they get to further their understanding of how the daguerreotypes are chemically composed and the methods they can use in preserving them.”

Kozachuk, who did a double major undergraduate degree in Chemistry and Art History, wanted to keep both passions alive for her PhD and she liked the approach of combining the two – being able to look at the history of art from a scientific point of view. Her co-supervisors – T. K. Sham and Ron Martin from Chemistry and Andrew Nelson from Anthropology – allowed her the freedom to do so.

“It’s something that I’ve become quite passionate about, the interdisciplinary work,” she said. “It’s really important and people often forget about it, being in their own silos, but it (interdisciplinary work) produces something that has so much value.”

Kozachuk has used X-ray techniques to assess the wear-and-tear of wooden prayer beads from the Art Gallery of Ontario. She studied bone and teeth samples from coastal communities in Peru and has looked at ivory samples retrieved from Alaska. But she’s most excited about her new focus on daguerreotypes.

She is also doing an electro-cleaning study. Daguerreotypes, being silver, can tarnish. In order to remove this tarnish, one effective method is electro-cleaning, in which the daguerreotype acts as one end of the current and a platinum wand serves as the other end. By applying a current though a daguerreotype, you can jostle off the tarnish on its surface. But is this good for the daguerreotypes? That’s something else Kozachuk is looking at.

“It’s really cool,” she said, to be able to handle these artifacts in a way that is much more intimate then if you were simply visiting a museum.

“This is a whole different lens I have to view history, and it really is a different perspective on how people created and preserved history.”

John McElhone, head of Conservation and Technical Research for the CPI Restoration and Conservation Laboratory at the National Gallery of Canada, said by looking closely at art materials and art objects, he hopes Kozachuk can bring to light information about how, why, when, and where artists made daguerreotypes.

‘Lost’ images are recovered using a technique developed at Western University

“Madalena’s work should help deepen our understanding of the material nature of daguerreotypes,” said McElhone. “As she extends her research, we should be able to gain some knowledge about the nano-scale effects of electro-cleaning, one of the few techniques that conservators can use to reverse the effects of the silver tarnishing that can obscure daguerreotype images.”

McElhone added the collaboration with Western, and Kozachuk, is a great example of how there is an art to science, and a science to art.“As sophisticated analytical instrumentation is shown to reveal important facts about the materials and the facture of objects of cultural significance, it becomes essential for cultural institutions to find collaborations with the scientists who have access to instrumentation and who understand and can interpret the results,” he said.