Digitizing a Lincoln Ambrotype

Before and after conservation treatment by The Better Image.  Image use courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In a recent collaboration with The Better Image, CAW created an in-depth, hi-resolution digital record of the ambrotype, Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, May 7, 1858, by Abraham Byers for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Plate shown (from top to bottom) inside the original brass mat, without mat on black background, and viewed with transmitted light

Plate shown (from top to bottom) inside the original brass mat, without mat on black background, and viewed with transmitted light

The portrait, taken by eighteen-year-old Byers, was made in Beardstown, Illinois on the same day that Lincoln successfully defended Duff Armstrong for murder charges.  Byers recalled the encounter “He cast his eyes down on his old holland linen suit which had no semblance of starch in it, and said, ‘These clothes are dirty and unfit for a picture.’ But I insisted and he finally went with me.” (Source: Kunhardt III, Philip B., Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr.. Lincoln, Life-Size. New York, 2009)

This unique quarter plate cased image was in need of cleaning and conservation assessment due to concerns over an area on President Lincoln’s chin where the collodion had fractured and separated from the glass.  The treatment of the plate would require removing it from it’s case, which offered the rare opportunity of viewing the plate without the brass mat and preserver.  To make the most of this opportunity, Peter Mustardo of the Better Image approached us to produce images of the plate and surrounding components both before and after treatment to provide the fullest possible digital documentation of both the image and it’s condition.

Upon disassembling the ambrotype, it was discovered that the orientation of the plate (collodion side down) was not the plate’s original orientation.  A slight impression from the oval mat on the surface of the collodion indicated that, while the correct orientation of the portrait was collodion side down, the plate had originally been cased with the collodion side up.  After treatment of the plate, glass, mat, and preserver, the plate was returned to the case in it’s original orientation.  In addition to being historically accurate, this also reduced the appearance of the discoloration and cracking in the chin area of the image.

The before and after treatment images of the plate, as well as the images of the components of the case, were produced using our Hasselblad H4D-200MS camera, allowing for files of up to 3,400 ppi for this size of image.  The plate was lit in a variety of ways to provide the most complete record possible of the condition and appearance of the plate.  The digitization of unique photographic objects can be used by institutions in a number of ways; they provide a detailed record of damage and deterioration of an image so that changes can be tracked over time, they can be used to reduce damage caused by handling and exposure of the object to harmful exhibition conditions through the use of a surrogate, and they can improve accessibility to the public through online publication.


About albumenworks

Founded in Chicago in 1976 by Doug Munson and Joel Snyder, CAW moved to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts in 1982. The Chicago Albumen Works puts decades of experience to work for some of the finest collections from around the world. A combination of technical expertise and historical perspective, operating in a controlled, conservation environment, directs our solutions to the diverse challenges presented by photograph collections. At CAW, the synergy of technical understanding, a conservator’s approach, an artist’s eye and a historian’s perspective creates a unique, productive, and collegial environment.
This entry was posted in Archival Digitization, Collection Services, Digital Imaging, Fine Art Reproduction and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Digitizing a Lincoln Ambrotype

  1. Very interesting, and important.

  2. Lenore says:

    Beautiful work!

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