The photography history books call it the 1848 Cincinnati Panorama, even though its original title is written, bold as brass, right across the top. “Daguerreotype view of Cincinnati,” the gold-leaf lettering declares. Then, across the bottom: “Taken from Newport, KY., by Fontayne and Porter.”
For me, it’s just been the “Dag” ever since I saw it lying on its back inside a wire security cage on the C floor stacks of the downtown Main Library. That was nearly 10 years ago. The Dag had already been in the dark, rarely visited and even more rarely shown, for over a half century. Now, it’s finally stepping out, emerging this May for permanent display at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, masterfully transformed into a one-work blockbuster art show and online digital rock star.
Back when I was first ushered into the stacks for a brief visit, I thought I knew the Dag well—or at least I knew the blow-up version. Every time I walked through the Main Library, I had only to look up at the Dag as an enormous photomural on the atrium wall. You may have seen it, too—many steamboats, few trees on the denuded hills, lots of brick warehouses, church steeples, and riverside squalor—1848 Porkopolis on the Ohio. But what I didn’t realize then is that you can’t really know the original from a copy, at least not the Dag.
The original panorama was waiting patiently upstairs in the stacks, propped up inside the plywood box and low cradle that a library carpenter improvised years before to keep one edge slightly elevated. At 150 years old, gravity was the Dag’s enemy. The furniture pad that wrapped the Dag in darkness for decades was pulled aside, but the flimsy Plexiglas lid was still locked. The low cradle, the awkward angle, and the bare-bones lighting made it difficult but I could see for the first time that the Dag was encased in a massive mid-Victorian mahogany frame and surrounded by an elaborate period mat. The cardboard mat had been cleverly cut and scribed into a row of tiny Doric pillars that covered the narrow joints between the eight separate 8½- by 6½-inch plates that comprise the panorama. The paper pillars created the illusion that the viewer was standing inside an elegant conservatory looking out through eight windows at the river and city beyond. Of the plates, I could see that there was something there, if only I could get a closer look. But I was not able to. And before I knew it, a decade and a digital revolution went by.
Now the Cincinnati Panorama appears in a new light. Refortified, resealed in inert argon gas, and reimagined as a digital scan, the Dag will be receiving visitors at the Main Library and online around the world. (Indeed, the reintroduction has already begun; last year, Wired magazine wrote about its restoration and put a digitized version of the daguerreotype on the web.) A process that has been obsolete since 1860 will re-emerge in our time as a once and future technology. A true wonder of the ages.
O Dag, I hardly knew you.
The Dag is not just another old photograph. It’s not even a photograph in the modern sense of an image recorded on film or through digital sensors. Invented by the eponymous Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839, daguerreotyping was the world’s first practical photographic technology. Daguerreotypes capture light not on film, glass, or charge-coupled devices (CCDs), but on silver-coated copper plates fumed with iodine and bromine. At room temperature, these powdered chemicals “sublimate”—that is, they pass directly from a solid state to a vapor, rising in an invisible fog that reacts with the silver to create a superfine “nano-structure” of photosensitive silver halides only a few molecules deep. This is not just arcane chemistry. It makes the surface of a daguerreotype plate a molecular landscape far more precise than any film or “wet plate” glass negative; even today, only specialized camera systems (think the camera on the Hubble space telescope) can match its detail. When you put a powerful magnifying glass to conventional prints made from film negatives, the images break up into meaningless blotches. That’s called grain, and it is the resolution limit of all films. Blow up the finest Ansel Adams black and white negative of Yosemite to 10 times the original, and watch El Capitan develop acne.
But a properly prepared, exposed, and developed daguerreotype doesn’t have grain (or rather, it doesn’t appear until you get close to 40 times original). Ralph Wiegandt, the senior project conservator at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, who carried out the digital scanning of the Cincinnati Panorama, calculated that its eight plates could be enlarged to full resolution with no loss in detail to form an image over 21 feet high and 226 feet long. Libraries don’t have the space or the money for such an image.
But the Internet does. (What doesn’t it have room for?) Yet even a 500-gigabyte scan of the Dag is only a copy. Which is why the Cincinnati Panorama is so astonishing: A daguerreotype is one-of-a-kind, like an oil painting. The original is unique. There is no negative, no print, no exact copy. A daguerreotype can be reproduced by other means but it can never be duplicated. The inability to print copies was one reason that the daguerreotype fad, which took America by storm in the 1840s, was stone dead by 1860. Oddly, it’s also a reason that daguerreotypes are suddenly hot again in the early 21st century.
The Dag was the creation of two young entrepreneurs on the make, Charles H. Fontayne and his partner, William Southgate Porter, who shot it in a dozen or so feverish minutes on September 24, 1848. We know this from decades of scholarly research and from the new digital scan. By comparing weather descriptions, steamboat licenses, and river level reports, researchers pinned the Dag to this one low-water, sunny Sunday afternoon. The high-res scan pegged it at 1:55 p.m. by expanding the 1 millimeter-wide clock face on the Second Presbyterian Church on Fourth Street to readable size.
Fontayne and Porter had big plans for their Dag. They shelled out for the massive frame, complex matting, and gold lettering to dress it for travel, sending it east to win acclaim at arts-and-science exhibitions in Philadelphia and Baltimore. It went on to London for its apotheosis as cutting edge technology at the Crystal Palace exposition in 1851.
Mysteriously, the Panorama disappeared until 1887, when it surfaced back in Cincinnati on temporary exhibit in James Landy’s Fourth Street photographic gallery. Porter and Fontayne had dissolved their partnership decades before and apparently Porter’s share of the enterprise included the Panorama. Porter died, aged 67, in 1889; Fontayne outlived his former partner, dying at 87 in 1901. In 1912, the Dag was loaned to the old Main Library on Vine Street, where it became a nostalgic wall fixture. Then in 1946, a new librarian, Carl Vitz, came to Cincinnati from Minneapolis. Vitz saw in the Panorama an intriguing historical puzzle and a public relations symbol for his campaign to replace old Main with a new building. Vitz bought the panorama from Porter’s son, had the individual daguerreotype plates beautifully copied onto film, and moved the original to a bank vault. For the opening of the new Main Library in 1955, Vitz put up a photomural of the Dag over the reference desk in the history department but locked the Panorama in a security cage in the stacks. When the building expanded into its new-new Main Library in 1983, an even bigger blow-up went up in the atrium.
Except for a brief outing cross-town to the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) in 1985 and for the occasional special visitor, the Panorama rested in the dark for 51 years. In 2006, the Dag left town, bound for Rochester in the back of a plain white cargo van. And not a moment too soon.
The need for conservation became clear shortly after the 1985 CAM showing, when a photography expert from Eastman House dropped by to visit the Dag in its storage cage. Even in those dim conditions, he could see that the plates appeared to be slipping behind the elaborate paperboard mat. Later it was discovered that an earlier 20th century remounting had used only gummed paper tape to hold the plates. The Dag was put on strict “Don’t lend, don’t move” orders and left in the dark. It presented a conundrum for librarians: Was it art or was it a rare document? And did it belong in a library? Either way, there were many other rare documents in need of expensive care. Meanwhile, the Dag’s fame quietly spread. Small parties of urban planners, art scholars, and history buffs made the pilgrimage to the stacks to see it. It took 20 years to reach a critical mass of expert opinion, special funding, and contract-writing to send the Dag, under close watch, to Rochester for the attention it needed.
A jump seat was strapped into the van backwards so the occupant could keep an eye on the Dag in its custom-built travel sarcophagus with a see-through lid. Once in the Eastman House conservation lab, the Dag went under a Zeiss stereoscopic microscope that was hooked up to a computer-driven automatic scanner. Each plate was divided into 1,440 “tiles,” scanned at higher and higher magnification, and then stitched together, pixel by pixel. The results were both dismaying and elating. Fine bits of dust, soot, and fiber imperceptible to the human eye had penetrated the Dag’s sealed glass cover, burrowing into and reacting with the silver surface. In art conservation, daguerreotypes are still a young technology (after all, most are little more than 150 years old), so chemical intervention was rejected as too risky. Better to inhibit any further damage by encapsulating each plate in a non-reactive argon gas–filled frame, suiting up the plates like space walkers through time.
The elation came from the bottomless depth of detail. Cincinnati in 1848 was there, popping into remarkably sharp focus. Patricia Van Skaik, who manages the library’s Genealogy and Local History Department, has marshalled the long struggle to conserve—and to share with the public—what she calls “the Mona Lisa of daguerreotypes.” Van Skaik began the project with library services director Keith Kuhn, who died unexpectedly in 2008. She continued with other staff members, including Jason Buydos, an assistant director of support services who configured the online and display screen interfaces, and with Jim Mainger, who collaborated on 30 “Points of Interest”—selected image areas where viewers can “drill down” into the images. Tapping on the white cupola of the Fourth District School, for example, will take you to an 1840s “monthly ticket” or report card, to images of other public schools visible on the Dag, and to a concise account of the bitterly resisted birth of the taxpayer-supported Common Schools of Cincinnati. Other “Points” delve into 1848 views on immigration (Germans and other outlanders were undermining the American republic), free African-Americans on the border of a slave state (like Germans, definitely viewed as a threat), and topics such as laundry (you can see a lot of it drying in the Dag, even though it’s a Sunday).
“The idea is that you can walk away with a sense of what it was like to live in a mid-19th-century city, specifically Cincinnati,” Van Skaik explains. The Points are cued by visual details like the “Foreign Wines & Liquors” sign that runs the width of a riverfront warehouse (it was aimed at the passing steamboat trade) or the inconspicuous drainage ditch sloping down to the river. Van Skaik’s librarians traced the ditch to a row of nearby houses where a cholera epidemic struck in 1849. Alcohol and sewage run side by side on the Dag, breaking the cozy illusion of a quaint, orderly past. “There were a lot of people in the 19th century who thought it was safer to drink alcohol instead of water or milk. Given the state of the milk and the water, they may have been right,” says Van Skaik.
In its new $150,000 display, the Dag will be installed in the old Rare Book Room, renamed for Joseph S. Stern Jr., a long-time board member and heir to the U.S. Shoe Company fortune. Stern, who died in 2010, left the library the largest gift in its history: $1 million toward the endowment.
The Dag will be flanked by a 50-inch multi-touch flat panel screen tied into Main Library servers, where users can dig their way to pixel heaven with a cursor. (“There’s nothing like a 50-inch screen to catch people’s attention,” says Buydos.) There will be another big screen showing the Dag in the first floor Atrium. And the whole Cincinnati 1848 experience will be available worldwide through the library’s website (virtuallibrary.cincinnatilibrary.org). If you access it from home, your 1848 experience, says Buydos, will only be limited by the size of your screen.
Which gets back to that testy question: The Dag may be history, but is it art? I waved that red flag at Keith F. Davis, the author of several histories of American photography and the curator who steered the Hallmark Photographic Collection into the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Davis gamely took the bait. “It’s a masterpiece,” he said, for starters. “It’s not just a daguerreotype. It’s a really, really major piece. It’s one of the great achievements in the American daguerreotype period.”
So does that make it art? The question is beside the point, insisted Davis. “The point is that it was intended as a showpiece. This was intended to have a public life. It was not intended to go on one person’s wall, never to be seen by anyone else. This was intended to be a drop-dead, ‘Oh-my-God’ showpiece.
“It’s a piece of astonishing technical achievement and a piece of really ambitious artistry,” he added. “It was traveled internationally. It was seen in London by people from all over the world who talked about it. It doesn’t get any better than that! If the word art doesn’t describe that then the word has no use for us at all.”
At George Eastman House, Wiegandt was delighted to talk about argon plumbing, picture “stitching” software, or the insidious threat of lint to the Dag. But he wanted no part of defining art in the 21st century. So, I asked, what do you call the panorama?
“A wonder,” he said.
Image from the Collection of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton CountyOriginally published in the May 2011 issue.
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