Mirrors with Memory

Kate McDougall 024: Mirrors with Memory
October 15, 2015

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Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes in preparation for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada? Since 2013, as part of an ongoing partnership between Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and the National Gallery, items from LAC’s collection are being exhibited on the walls of the National Gallery. In this episode, we speak to LAC curator Jennifer Roger, and head conservator of photographic materials Tania Passafiume about the work that went into the latest collaboration, which features 15 rare daguerreotypes dating back to the very beginnings of photography.

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Mirrors with Memory: Daguerreotypes from Library and Archives Canada
Mirrors with Memory: Daguerreotypes from Library and Archives Canada—an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada - The Discover Blog
Mirrors with Memory: Daguerreotypes Flickr Album
Photography – The Discover Blog
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Podcast Transcript

Mirrors with Memory

Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to "Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage." I'm your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes in preparation for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada? Since 2013, as part of an ongoing partnership between Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and the National Gallery, items from our collection are being exhibited on the walls of the National Gallery. In this episode, we speak to LAC curator Jennifer Roger, and head conservator of photographic materials Tania Passafiume about the work that went into the latest collaboration, which features 15 rare daguerreotypes dating back to the very beginnings of photography.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype to the world in 1839. As it was the first publicly announced photographic process, one can only imagine the excitement generated by the news of this new technique that could capture the world in full detail, as we see it. Although many photographic processes emerged at the time, few delivered an image with such depth and clarity. These finely polished, silver-plated daguerreotypes were often hand-coloured and housed in decorative cases, making them a sight to behold. To this day, many dedicated photographers choose the daguerreotype as their format of choice, despite the many difficulties involved in producing them.

If you are interested in viewing images associated with this podcast, including many of the items featured in this exhibition and a behind-the-scenes look at the conservation work involved, you can follow along by viewing our Flickr gallery. You can access a direct link at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

Hi Jennifer, hi Tania. Thank you for joining us today. I understand that Library and Archives Canada has established a partnership with the National Gallery of Canada to exhibit items from our collection on their walls. Can you tell us how that partnership came about, Jennifer?

Jennifer Roger: Sure. Library and Archives is always looking for ways to share our collection with the public. A great way to do this is by finding partnering institutions that might want to contribute to interpretation either through their own storytelling or simply by providing a venue through which we can reach a wider audience. In the case of the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), we're thrilled to partner with such an important venue. It's pretty exciting to be able to share the Library and Archives collection material with the NGC audience.

JO: What are some of the exhibitions that we've put up to date?

JR: So the next exhibition will be the 6th in this partnership series. Library and Archives and the NGC have taken turns curating these shows and there has been a wide range of topics including images from the Arctic from the turn of the 20th century, 19th-century exploration photography, early photographs of Newfoundland, 19th-century panoramas of cities in Canada, and the current exhibition which features 19th-century travel photography from Canada.

We're really looking forward to the next show, which will be titled "Mirrors with Memory" and it will feature daguerreotypes, which is the earliest publicly available photographic process. These daguerreotype exhibitions are extremely rare and this will be the first prominent exhibition of these 19th-century objects in what we feel is Canadian history.

JO: Oh! So I imagine though that not too many people are familiar with the term daguerreotype. Can you explain to us what a daguerreotype is Tania?

Tania Passafiume: Well, a daguerreotype is a piece of copper that is plated with silver. It was actually one of the very first photographic processes that they would use in a camera. It's a direct positive process so there is no negative. The word daguerreotype is a strange name, at least for us, and it's actually the name of one of the inventors, Monsieur Daguerre.

JO: OK. Jennifer, can you tell us what's included in the exhibition?

JR: Sure. We selected 15 objects to showcase. The daguerreotypes people will be able to see include portraits of known and unknown sitters as well as a couple of street and landscape scenes. Almost all of the objects are from the 19th century, but we've included one example of a contemporary daguerreotype as this process is still being used today by a small number of photographic artists. Also, in the gallery there will be a beautiful example of an original daguerreotype camera.

JO: What was the criteria for the selection of the items?

JR: Overall we selected what we felt were some of the best examples of the collection's daguerreotypes, which show the various ways and formats, which process was used. We wanted objects that were in good condition, as deterioration is common with this process and can make viewing difficult if the deterioration is advanced. We selected images of people we felt had interesting stories or images that depicted an interesting event in Canadian history. We also selected a locket as it really—to me—conveys how personal daguerreotypes were, how these one-of-a-kind objects were carried, looked at and treasured.

JO: What are some of your favourite items in the show? Either of you.

TP: I have 3 favourites, they're all images of women. The first one I would say is an unidentified woman with a First Nations ribbon and a shawl. What I liked about this image is the hand-colouring is very subtle—the scarf is green, the jewelry is hand-coloured in gold and her arm is resting on a little…

JO: Side table.

TP: Side table. Thank you. Just her face is just so calm and relaxed and very very beautiful. The second one is kind of fun I thought, her name is Kate MacDougal. I really liked this daguerreotype because her face just gives this attitude—you know, I'm so done with this daguerreotype, I'm so done with this. I really liked the polka dot dress off the shoulders. Again her hand is resting on this side table and in her hand—I'm really lucky I get to look at these through the microscope because I get to see little details that you don't usually get to see—and in her hand that she's resting, you can see that she's holding some kind of card—it's a calling card, it's something—it's very curious to me what is in her hand. Also, she's wearing this beautiful locket and when Jennifer and I looked under the microscope we were really curious about what this image was, remember Jennifer? So we looked under the microscope and it really wasn't anything, it was this marble, I thought it was a bird or something.

JR: It was very hard to make out.

TP: It was very hard to make out; even under the microscope it was difficult to make out. That of course segues to my final piece I really liked of the 3 young ladies. Again under the microscope, even without the microscope you can see their cheeks are slightly tinted. They have these beautiful red ribbons around their necks and one of them has—if you look closely under the microscope you can see it really well—it's a locket on her neck, I guess it is. It's an angel trumpeting; it's really beautiful, it's so subtle you can only see it under the microscope. That's why I kind of like those because it's kind of like hidden.

JO: The hidden beauty…

TP: …of these little details.

JO: Yeah.

JR: Yeah, it's so hard to choose favourites, they are all so amazing. I'm also drawn to a few specific ones. I love the portrait known as the "Carpenter in Canada." This one dates from around 1850 and features a hand-tinted portrait of a man holding a hammer. This daguerreotype belonged to Lord Elgin who was the Governor of British North America from 1847 to 1854, and the man in the portrait worked as his carpenter while he lived in Québec City. I also love the group portrait of nine men who were the merchants, business men and civic leaders of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in the 19th century. This one is so great. Group portraits in the daguerreotype format are not as common. This object is extra special because it still has an original manuscript hidden inside the back of the case that lists the names of all of the guys in the portrait, the location and the name of the photographer. It's from 1855 and it always amazes me when objects of this age are in such good condition still and we think of all the hands that have held this object—that this little handwritten note also survived all of these years.

TP: I just want to say about the carpenter daguerreotype—I mean under the microscope again—he has this beautiful jacket on and you don't really see it with the naked eye, but it's actually like a purply colour, it's really beautiful.

JR: Yeah.

TP: I thought that was really special. The group of the men from Dartmouth, they were interesting. As a conservator, I found that they had been previously treated here so when I see that plate I think—oh this is really weird, there is something strange about this plate. That's just from seeing so many daguerreotypes and seeing that one's off. Finding in the conservation archives here that it had been treated and has been altered a bit, but it is a beautiful piece.

JR: Yeah, they are all gorgeous.

JO: Interesting to see the history and the fact that you would catch that it had been worked on before. So, speaking of treatment, were any of the items in need of treatment?

TP: Oh, a lot were in need of treatment. There was a lot of problems with glass deterioration, there was mould, and again there was tarnish because they are silver-plated—they do tarnish when they get in contact with air.

JO: So what sort of treatments?

TP: For this show, for these particular daguerreotypes, I cleaned the glass. There are different types of glass deterioration. One step is they just kind of get a cloudy look to them and so if the glass was just easily cleaned, I cleaned it and re-used the original glass; I like to keep the original parts. If not, as in the case of Kate MacDougal, which is amazing, had weeping glass. It was kind of like, it's alkaline dripping off the glass, it can drip onto the plate. The problem with this is that the alkaline can rest on the plate and can have a problem on the plate—I mean the plate being the daguerreotype. The only solution to fix that is to actually do an aqueous solution, but luckily she didn't have that problem, she was still in the glass and I didn't have to do an aqueous solution for that, but I replaced the [glass] plate with a borosilicate glass. The other ones that were unsealed, I resealed them with modern conservation materials.

JO: And it prevents air from touching them? Is that it?

TP: I should have gone back to that. The daguerreotype is made out of many things, so you have a copper plate that has either been plated or dipped into silver. When it's ready, they put it in an iodine vapour box and they vapourize it I guess, with iodine so it gets sensitive. Then they take it out and put that in the camera and then they expose it and when they take it out it's a latent image, so you cannot see the image. Then you put it in mercury vapour and then the image appears. Then you go into fixing it and gilding it with gold. Because of the silver it tarnishes just like other silver objects, so they knew—Daguerre back then knew—this was a problem, so they would seal them with these paper tapes. What they would seal them with—so you would have the bare plate, on top of that a brass mat, on top of that a glass and they would all be sealed together. Then another brass preserver, kind of this pitch thing would keep it all together and they would be put in cases. I mean they are quite old by now and it's quite rare to find daguerreotypes that have original sealing and these particular 15 did not have original sealing tape or had none; they have already been removed or they deteriorated. It's really important for me to reseal them so that they don't tarnish anymore. There was also mould on some of them and a lot of people think that's surprising to find on daguerreotypes, but there was a lot of mould. If the plates weren't hand-coloured I would do aqueous treatments to them, but because they are hand-coloured, I would not do aqueous treatments to them. It just happens that the ones that had mould on it were all hand-coloured, so how I treated those was I took a paint brush and cut the hairs until maybe 1 or 2 hairs left—under a microscope, I have to say kind of flick it off with a hurricane blower. It was a very unsatisfactory treatment to the mould as the mould seemed to really be on there, so you will see mould on some of them, little hairs—they are kind of stuck on there now.

JO: Did you have any other interesting discoveries while treating the items?

TP: Oh yeah! When I start opening them that's when I get all the nice surprises. For example, I saw some plate marks, and so plate marks are usually behind the brass mats, usually in the corners or edges. It's usually different symbols and usually with the number 40 with it. It's the person who made the plate, not the photographer, but the person who made the plate. They've dated all of these plate marks and you can go back. Many of these were made in France, the plates, if they had plate marks on them. That's kind of nice for aging because you can kind of guess the age as well if you don't really know.

JO: For all of those undated, kind of anonymous….

TP: For those—you can say this plate was used mainly in this period, so it's kind of an added little bonus. Also, I found a fingerprint, which was really, really fun. That was hidden behind the Molson fire, is that right?

JR: Yeah.

TP: And you cannot see it unfortunately because the brass mat is there, but above the stacks on the upper left corner there is a little fingerprint and I would think that would be the photographer's fingerprint or his assistant's. It's kind of a nice little find.

JO: The human touch.

TP: The human touch.

JO: Can you tell us a bit more about the collection, the daguerreotype collection here and how many items does it include?

JR: In the Library and Archives collection there is about 260 objects, made up mainly of portraits. There is some interesting Canadian personalities in there including Sir John A. Macdonald, Archibald McDonald who was the chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, Louis-Joseph Papineau, and Ojibway chief Maungwudaus—so that one is from about 1846. To us it's important because it's not only a beautiful portrait, but it's the earliest known portrait of an Aboriginal person in the Library and Archives collection. The Sir John A. Macdonald one is of course really special, not only though because it's a portrait of a former prime minister, but the object itself is pretty neat. The locket contains multiple portraits actually—so there is Sir John A. in there, there is also his former wife Isabella and his first son. So there are 3 daguerreotypes in that locket, which are beautiful. To me, the image of the remnants of the Molson brewery—the object that Tania found the fingerprint on—is also pretty great. That was taken in 1858, and to me, to have an event like that captured in a daguerreotype is pretty lucky.

JO: Yeah, because there wouldn't have been so many landscapes or architecture.

JR: Exactly, they are hard to find. To just have such a prominent event captured on this sort of one-of-a-kind object is pretty special. I'd also have to include the daguerreotype known as the "Saint-Jean-Baptist Day" in there, in the highlight list. This is a gorgeous hand-tinted image showing 4 boys dressed in costume that represent the various personalities that convey the relationship between France and New France. The man who commissioned this image was a Montréal tailor and he's also present in the portrait. What's so interesting about this object though, aside from the beautiful quality and detail, is that we know so much about it. We know a lot about its story, why it was commissioned and its provenance. We know that it was commissioned to celebrate Quebec's fête nationale and was presented to a ship's captain whose ship arrived in Québec City on Bastille Day in 1855.

JO: On Bastille Day or Saint-Jean-Baptist Day?

JR: On Bastille Day. The captain was to bring the daguerreotype back to France to present to French royalty and then it was actually returned to Canada ultimately in 1984 by a descendent of the ship's captain. It's kind of interesting to have.

JO: So it went over, came back?

JR: Yeah, it came back. It's kind of neat to have that whole story here.

TP: The colouring is also so superb, under the microscope again. I mean the colours—the yellow—you can actually see the brush strokes and the detail in the red; it's such a very colourful daguerreotype. It's quite, quite unusual. It's a beautiful piece.

JO: So do we know how LAC acquired all of these daguerreotypes?

JR: So it's made up of a combination of both purchases and donations. In some cases, the objects were part of a larger fonds or personal collection, but most arrived at Library and Archives because they helped to tell the story of Canada in some way and the people that have been part of its history.

JO: Can people consult the collection?

JR: Oh yeah, absolutely. So everything is accessible by researchers. Because of the fragility of these objects, they've got to remain at the Preservation Centre in Gatineau, but like the rest of the LAC collection, researchers are invited to make consultation appointments and they can come and view everything they'd like to at our research facility.

JO: I presume Tania is standing right beside them?

TP: [laughs] I wish! I wish I had time to see all of them.

JO: You sort of mentioned that there were contemporary daguerreotype photographers, so how common is this and who are they?

TP: It's actually pretty common nowadays. There are several in Canada who do it now—all over the world, I'm sure every country has their own daguerreotypist. I think the biggest drawback for people wanting to do this is—back when they were first started, I mean you could buy equipment. You could buy the camera, the book, the plates already prepared and even the mercury and iodine vapour units. Now I mean—and you could buy of course the cases—for this exhibition there is no cases being shown, only one, but they all come in cases, so it was all kind of prefab and people don't really realize that. You could just buy it already prefab and now you can't. People do make them, people do sell the vapour kit and people find their plates. They have to get them prepared and people do recreate also the cases nowadays. A lot of artists are doing a lot of contemporary work and they're beautiful, beautiful pieces.

JO: It sounds so toxic. Like a mercury vapour?

TP: Yeah, I've done it in controlled environments—not here, but in other areas under supervision. But I think that's one thing that people don't like about it. There is another technique; they can use the Becquerel method, which you don't use the vapour, the mercury, you just use tinted glass. It was also Monsieur Becquerel that invented it just after 1840, right after daguerreotypes kind of became known. It's really hard to determine, which one was used, either the mercury or the Becquerel so it's actually equivalent. But I think a lot of the daguerreotypists now, they are true; they want the mercury, they want to go all the way.

JO: If they are going to be historical.

TP: Yeah, you might as well go all the way. I do respect that. I know someone who runs around and he has it hooked up to the back of his pickup truck, the mercury. So it's kind of fun because then he can go anywhere and do this because it's quite a set up; you need a darkroom, you need all this gear and who wants mercury vapour in their building.

JO: Nobody.

TP: Nobody. So that's also why they're rare because they are also one-of-a-kind, so they are quite rare. Like I said they do look different; the contemporary ones do have a different quality to them, but it's probably the quality of the plate itself. Of course, they age and the new ones you just see they are not tarnished, they aren't worn-looking in the cases.

JO: It's really interesting to think of LAC material, like archival material, being considered as a work of art. Why do you think that is?

TP: I just want to say that I find it very interesting because we have a lot of fine art pieces here and we have a lot of archival pieces here, but with these exhibitions at National Gallery of Canada, we've had curators from the National Gallery come and curate the shows and are internal curators. As a conservator I find it very interesting because I'm preparing the objects for the exhibitions, putting them in their mats, discussing things with the curators, how they want the look to be, how they want the exhibition to look like. But what I find interesting is that when the curators from the National Gallery come, they always want things to show all of the edges of the pieces, they want to show all the corners of the objects, all the mounts. As a conservator, I'm like "ugh"—you know they're messy, it's not nice, you know it needs a lot of treatment and we're not going to treat them, so they are showing it as an archival document on their walls. But when our curators show work they are hiding all of the mounts, and they are going right up to the image and they are showing it more as a fine art piece.

JO: So there is a different perspective going on here.

TP: Just as a conservator, that's my point of view. I just find that fascinating, this little dynamic that's going on. Jennifer you have something else as a curator?

JR: Yeah, I was just going to say that I think the line between fine art and archival items, especially when it comes to photography has really become a grey area. A lot of the photographic objects in the LAC collection are classified as archival or documentary objects. But documentary photography is now understood to be fine art in most art collections in the world, so some curatorial study now discusses the work of many daguerreotypists as not being simply straight up studio portraiture, but as having been influenced by composition, style and artistry found in paintings of the same era. So photography is still often seen as truthful representation of a person or a scene, but despite what we know about image and camera manipulation. Those issues are still going on in older photographic processes as well, so there is a lot more to these objects than one might assume. I think to me, documentary photography freezes these moments in time for us and it tells us how people thought about it, and you know received and understood the world back then just as any other fine art object might. To me it's just a grey area and it just fits in any venue.

JO: "Mirrors with Memory: Daguerreotypes from Library and Archives Canada" is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until February 28, 2016. You can find out more about the exhibition at gallery.ca. Don't forget to have a look at our Flickr album which includes many of the daguerreotypes from this exhibition and a behind-the-scenes account of the preparation that went into the show. Check our blog, thediscoverblog.com for more photo-related content. You can find the content quickly by selecting "Photography" from the category list on the right side of the web page.

Thank you for joining us. I'm your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you've been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Jennifer Roger and Tania Passafiume.

For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

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