During my nearly eight years at the VHS, I’ve had many instances where I’ve needed to stop and do a double take.
We need you to photograph a small pox scab.
Those bears are on leashes.
Wait. What is going on there?
J. E. B. Stuart signed his pants.
Wait. Really? [not really, but someone signed them for him]
When I digitized a set of daguerreotypes this summer I made that familiar pause again.
Wait. Didn’t I just see this image?
It turns out that the two daguerreotypes of Lucy Goode Tucker Chambers that I was holding were mirror images of one another. It took me a while to determine what was going on. I compared the ribbon on her bonnet, the swag of her watch chain, and even the book on which she rests her elbow. Did she just shift her weight to the other side, or was it the same image in reverse?
I confirmed it by digitally flipping and overlaying one image on top of the other. After a slight resizing, it was a perfect match. What a unique find!
Daguerreotypes are the earliest form of permanent photographic imagery. They are made by capturing an image on a polished silver-coated, light-sensitive copper plate, which is developed with mercury vapor and fixed with a salt solution. Because the finished plate is viewed from the side that was closest to the subject, when the daguerreotype is created, the image is laterally reversed—a mirror image. The use of a reflective prism could produce a right-reading image, but that was rarely done primarily because the resulting light loss would require already-long exposure times to be even longer. To get a right-reading image, the easiest solution was to make a daguerreotype of the daguerreotype. The resulting copy would read correctly.
The Library of Congress has an interesting daguerreotype in their collection that shows a house with a picket fence. A landscape view like this is something that would be important to view in the correct orientation, not mirrored. To solve this problem, a mirror was included in the daguerreotype case so that the viewer could look at the photo of the house through the mirror and see a correctly oriented house and street scene. Ahhh, home feels like home again.
Each daguerreotype is a one-of-a-kind photograph. Because there is no negative, there is no way to produce a subsequent print.
With this set of portraits of Chambers we are left wondering if we have two images because 1) someone wanted a right-reading image or 2) someone wanted a second copy. We’ll never know for sure, but we can enjoy this example of early photography either way.
To learn more about the process of making a daguerreotype, check out this excellent video from The J. Paul Getty Museum:
Meg M. Eastman is the Digital Collections Manager at the Virginia Historical Society.