Daniel Grushkin

The Case of the Disappearing Daguerreotypes (Scientific American)

In the theaterlike darkness of the international Center of Photography in New York City, black-and-white ghosts of New England’s mid-19th-century Boston Brahmins stared out from behind the glass-and-rosewood frames. These were the works of Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, the Rembrandts of daguerreotypy—the first practical form of photography. A demure bride in white silk crepe fingered her ribbons; the stern and haughty statesman Daniel Webster glared from behind his brow. When the “Young America” exhibit opened in 2005, its 150-year-old images captured American icons at a time when the nation was transitioning from adolescence into a world power. “Each picture glows on the wall like a stone in a mood ring,” the New York Times raved in its review.

Yet after a month on exhibit, the silver plate–bound images began to degrade. White spots overtook half the portrait of a woman in a curtain-length skirt. Iridescent halos formed on abolitionist Henry Ingersoll Bowditch. Other images blistered. By the end of the two-and-a-half-month show, 25 daguerreotypes had been damaged, five of them critically.