How to Preserve a Piece of Abolitionist History
In late August 1850, Cazenovia, New York—a small town not far from Syracuse—hosted an important gathering that was captured in a rare photograph. At the left-center of the image is orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, framed by a handful of the thousands of supporters jostling for a view.
The event was to rally opposition to a proposed Fugitive Slave Act under review by the United States Congress, which would allow marshals to arrest anyone suspected of having escaped enslavement. Grace Wilson, a local schoolteacher and member of the Cazenovia Ladies Antislavery Society, opened her apple orchard for the crowd, which had grown too big for the original venue nearby. The other speakers joining Douglass that day were notable for their own contributions to the abolitionist cause.
The photograph now resides in the Getty Center Museum’s collection and is the subject of a new online exhibition on Google Arts & Culture. It tells the story of this important historical record and allows visitors to zoom in on the details of this extraordinary day.
Getty’s photograph conservators help to preserve important images like this for posterity so that we can look back at significant moments in the nation’s history. Sarah Freeman, a conservator for the Getty Museum, discusses how she cares for images like this one.
This kind of photograph is called a daguerreotype—can you explain what that is?
A daguerreotype is a photograph that is created in-camera using a polished metal plate and light-sensitive chemistry. Images are finished in the photo studio by sealing the plate under glass to protect the surface. Daguerreotype images typically have very high resolution and were prized for their close resemblance to nature. Historically, the daguerreotype image was created with a slower exposure—from seconds to minutes—requiring the subject to be very still otherwise there could be blurry edges. Many daguerreotype studios had supports like neck braces or armrests for people to lean on and prevent movement.
How rare is a photograph like this?
All 19th-century photographs are considered rare, because few have survived, relative to the billions of physical and digital photographs that we have around the globe today. The daguerreotype method creates a unique image without a negative which makes them even more rare, but this particular image may have been printed as a copy of the original by taking a picture of the original plate – a picture of a picture. The reason we think this could be a copy is because of the overall soft focus of the image that is often seen with copies.
What is it like to hold this kind of history?
Daguerreotypes are little links to history. I love looking at them because of the detail. It’s all very interesting, and there’s a story there. They were often made as keepsakes for one to safeguard. They might be portraits of family members or commemorate events. Sometimes we find small notes or letters inside the case behind the photograph, which is really special. It’s important to note that while this daguerreotype captures an abolitionist rally, there are instances where sad and somber occasions such as portraits in death, images of war, and servitude were documented. Some of my most memorable experiences in the lab have been quiet moments looking closely at, and learning from these objects.
As a photograph conservator, how do you handle a photograph like this one?
Daguerreotypes are typically very small and can be held in the palm of one’s hand. The surface is very delicate, and most are housed in small cases to protect them from fingerprints, scratches, distortion, or discoloration.
If the daguerreotype is not in a case, and the plate is exposed, it must be handled with extreme care to avoid touching the surface. I often create a pillow with foam and soft lint-free fabric inside a small tray, which I carry with two hands. I avoid touching the plate as much as possible, and it’s also important to use a transparent cover such as Plexiglas to prevent any dust or droplets from reaching the surface.
When it comes to conservation efforts, “less is more” with a daguerreotype. We often do very little. We might dust and perhaps apply a little moisture to remove embedded dirt on the exterior of the cover glass.
How do you store a daguerreotype?
First, we always hope that a daguerreotype has a case, which provides protection from air pollution, humidity, and light. We store our cases in climate-controlled spaces with cooler temperatures and lower humidity. Cooler, drier conditions extend the life of objects by slowing down chemical reactions that can lead to changes in the image or the case.
Cased objects are stored in foam trays within flat archival storage boxes on compact shelving. This environment also protects them from earthquakes and provides protection when they are moved elsewhere. Also, as light-sensitive objects, we exhibit them in rotation, usually for a display period of a few months at a time to prevent overexposure.
What are some other steps you take to conserve this photograph for future generations?
Storage is key. But we also recently documented Getty’s daguerreotype collection digitally in very high resolution. We can then examine the case and the photograph when they are requested for study or display in an exhibition, using zoom-able image files to look for any microscopic changes. Since they are typically very small, magnification is usually needed to examine the image closely.