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Pioneer findings of daguerreotype properties revealed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art



The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) and the University of New Mexico today announced the pioneering findings of a two-year study of the plasmonic properties of daguerreotypes. Using atomic force microscopy and scanning electron microscopy along with numerical calculations, the team of scientists at the Met and UNM, in collaboration with Century Darkroom, Toronto, was able to determine how light scattered by the metallic nanoparticles on the surface of a daguerreotype determines the characteristics of your image, such as shadow and color.

The pioneering research on nanotechnology of the 19th century: The plasmonic properties of daguerreotypes recently published in the journal PNAS not only provides a deep understanding of these nineteenth century photographs that are crucial for its preservation but also introduces new approaches to color printing where nanostructures are directly manufactured by light.

"The University of New Mexico team embarked on this study to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that give rise to the optical response of daguerreotypes and to contribute to the development of protocols to preserve these fragile artifacts." – Alejandro Manjavacas, UNM

The daguerreotype process

The man who named the daguerreotype process and perfected the method over several decades was Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a French artist and scenic painter.

The method he invented produced direct positive images on a silver-plated copper plate, relying on the light sensitivity of the silver halides, which made each daguerreotype a unique and unique object. Still, the resolution and clarity of the daguerreotype is extraordinary even by today's standards.

Up to three million daguerreotypes were produced each year in Europe and North America from 1839 to 1860, but the costly process was quickly replaced by faster methods.

"We are excited about these findings that help us better understand the fascinating properties of daguerreotypes and shed light on how to continue to promote the preservation of these incredible works of art," said Silvia A. Centeno, a researcher at the Department of Science. Search the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"The University of New Mexico team embarked on this study to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that give rise to the optical response of daguerreotypes and to contribute to the development of protocols to preserve these fragile artifacts," said Alejandro Manjavacas, a professor assistant at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. "Thanks to the fantastic teamwork between scientists from the cultural and scientific communities, we were able to accomplish what we set out to do."

Unlike other types of photographs, daguerreotypes depend on the scattering of light by metallic nanoparticles to create images that project from a silver reflective substrate. These early photographs can be recognized as the first examples of plasmonic color printing, an emerging field of research that explores the interactions between metallic and light nanostructures to produce vivid colors.


Daguerreotype in the MET study collection

Daguerreotype in the study collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (unknown artist, circa 1850) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) images from different regions of the daguerreotype.

The image tones of a daguerreotype are dynamic and unique because they can change with the angle of view and, for the first time, this effect is explained by the authors, who discovered that the morphology and size of the nanoparticles determines how they will spread, creating so the visual result of the daguerreotype.

Studies on the image properties of daguerreotypes serve to inform the development of preservation protocols as well as new approaches for future color printing technologies inspired by the above.

The team of scientists composed by Andrea Schlather and Centeno of the Department of Scientific Research of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Paul Gieri and Manjavacas of the Department of Physics and Astronomy of UNM, and the Nanoscience and Microsystems Program, and Mike Robinson of Century Darkroom, Toronto collaborated in this study.

The research was sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Annette de la Renta Foundation, and made use of the computer facilities provided by the UNM Advanced Research Center.


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