Friday, January 26, 2007

A Mirror with a Memory

Before I jump into this week’s subject, I thought I would share a scene, especially with readers not from around the Gananoque area. We’ve finally gotten our cold snap, and while walking into work this morning I noticed that the waterfalls had become very quiet. The reason, as you can see from these pictures, is that they are frozen. This dam continues to control the flow of the Gananoque River, and regulated the water that powered the many industries that lined the riverbanks in the past. Today, the waterpower that built Gananoque is still important, as it generates electricity for the town.

My title is taken out of the Canadian Conservation Institute’s exhaustive “Notes,” and refers to the first photographs ever produced: the ghostly Daguerreotypes. The Daguerreotype was invented in France in 1839 by L.J.M Daguerre, who agreed not to patent the invention in exchange for a pension from the French Government, allowing the technology to easily spread in the following years. These early photographs were made with “silver amalgam” a mix of silver and mercury on a copper plate. The result is a very reflective, mirrored surface with a negative image on it. Much like a hockey card hologram, you have to turn the daguerreotype and have the light hit it at an angle in order to see the actual image. When revealed the image is exceptionally clear, if somewhat spooky. They really do seem like “mirrors with a memory.” The daguerreotype you see here, to the right, is only visible because it is reflecting the outside of a black binder. The left picture is actually reflecting the knit of my sweater, and the half-dozen previous shots revealed only a reflection of my camera in the frame.

Just like today, with our own emerging competition between Blue Ray and HDDVD, different forms of similar technology competed for the mid-nineteenth century consumer market. Daguerreotypes were considered too expensive and too time consuming, and fell out of use by the American Civil War in the 1860s. Yet, their ethereal quality has ensured their continued use to this day, as some artists still produce them on a small scale. Paper photographs obviously won out in the end, but for a time, two other varieties competed: the tintype and the ambrotype. [1]

We don’t have any examples of the ambrotype, which was a negative image made on a sheet of glass with a dark backing of paint or cloth to give it the appearance of a positive. The ambrotype was invented in the 1850s, but by the late 1860s or early 70s they had more or less gone out of fashion.

The tintype is perhaps the most widely known and was the most common of these early forms of photography. “Tintype” is actually a misnomer, since the pictures are actually made on very thin pieces of iron, and are therefore sometimes more properly referred to as “ferrotypes.” These tintypes or ferrotypes were likely in an album or a fancy frame at some point but were taken out long ago. They are all somewhat irregularly shaped, with few straight edges. They are tiny, only a few inches square, yet they are very detailed. Unfortunately, as with so much in the collection, the catalogue cannot identify the people in the pictures. Clothing and the technology can give us some inexact clue to the dates, but for the most part the identities of these people are lost to time. They are important, however, as the process for making tintypes and daguerreotypes resulted in only one copy being possible. There can be no other original copies of these particular early photographs.

Finally, there is a little mystery with this one. It appears to be made of copper, it is certainly a negative and is affixed to a small wooden block. I have no idea what kind of early photograph it is. If anyone has an idea, please let me know. [Jeremy from Queen's University Archives has since informed me that this would have been used in printing, making copies of this image. That fact only increases the mystery of who this woman is!]


At long last, we have begun moving our volunteers over to the main collection area and have started the long process of photographing the entire collection. Things are moving very quickly with so many helpful and enthusiastic people hard at work. We have also begun thinking about setting up an exhibit for the summer. Our subject will be: Gananoque Industries, Labour and Lifestyle, 1860-1890. Many thanks to Pam and Lisa for getting in on the early stages of research.

I am currently setting up small exhibit on winter sports for the upcoming Senior Winter Games being held in Gananoque, and thought I would include a couple of the pictures found by volunteers John McDonald and Eileen Truesdell. So, for this week’s splash o’ nostalgia here is the all-star line up of the 1930, trophy-winning, Gananoque High School Hockey Team. Luckily, the names are listed and we have, in the back row: Ray Hawke, Arnold Bates, Harold White, Gerard Gardener, Henry Littlejohn, Oliver Wing and Archie Sequin. Front Row: Bill Valentine, Bernard O’Hearn, Bernard Shine, Merrill “Smiley” Cummings.

Next week I’ll hopefully be able to show a little on the storage plan for the artefacts and a show off some of the many thousands of artefacts in the Gananoque Museum Collections.

[1]Canadian Conservation Institute, Notes. 16/1 "Care of Encased Photographic Images" also see for an excellent link to more information on Daguerreotypes, Tintypes and Ambrotypes.

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