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Conservation of an 1842 daguerreotype, one of the oldest photographs at MoMA

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Tarnish is slowly engulfing one of the oldest objects in MoMA‘s collection, a daguerreotype from 1842 capturing two separate images—the Arch of Septimius Severus and Capitoline Lion in the Roman Forum. Within two years of the invention of photography, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, a French aristocrat, assembled a team to travel the Mediterranean and make over a thousand images of the region’s cities, people, and ruins. These early daguerreotypes projected images directly onto silver plates, like a mirror imprinting a reflection onto its polished surface. Akin to Polaroids, they were unique photographic objects that offered no convenient method of replication.

Daguerreotypes by Girault de Prangey are “the earliest surviving photographs of Greece, Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.” Their conservation can be tricky due to the “complicated” chemistry on the surface of each image, as seen with this image from Rome.

tarnish on a daguerreotype
Go behind the scenes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as Lee Ann Daffner, MoMA’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Conservator, demonstrates how she’s conserving the 1842 daguerreotype, one of the oldest photographs in MoMA’s collection. She explains:

“There’s a real art and science to the cleaning. Not only do you have to know the systems and materials and types of deterioration, but you need to know when to stop.”

Lee Ann Daffner
the Arch of Septimius Severus and Capitoline Lion in the Roman Forum
This is one in a series of Conservation Stories at MoMA. Previously on TKSST: Microscopically reweaving a 1907 painting and the meticulous work that goes into running the Museum of Modern Art.

Also from SFMoMA: Henry Fox Talbot, the First Photographs, and the Pioneers of Photography.

And finally, how art conservator Julian Baumgartner restores damaged paintings.

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