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Digital restoration brings a rare photograph back to life

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    • 11.288.2 American ivorytype before treatment and facsimile
    • 11.288.2 American ivorytype albumen print and salted paper photograph

Photograph Conservator Rachel Wetzel was pleasantly surprised when an American ivorytype, a rare photographic process first produced in the mid-1850s, recently arrived in the lab. This portrait of John Bell Hood, who became the most rapidly promoted Confederate Army leader in the Civil War when he rose from Lieutenant to Major General in just over a year, comes from a private collection. It is composed of a thick sheet of glass; a waxed and hand-painted albumen photograph; a second sheet of thinner glass; and a hand-painted salted paper photograph on a mount board with a paper backing. When viewed through this structure, the salted paper print colors shine through the albumen print, made translucent by the wax.

The resulting photograph is beautiful—but had become fragile. Yellow paper tape once held the structure together, but it had deteriorated. The albumen print, attached to the perimeter of the glass, had torn and cockled along the edges after years of expanding and contracting with environmental fluctuations. The wax had caused it to become extremely brittle. The salted paper print beneath it was in good condition, but due to the cockling and tears of the albumen print, it was no longer in registration with the top photograph and so appeared distorted.

Rachel determined that treatment would have had a limited success rate—the paper of the albumen print was so thin that any mends would have been visible—and suggested that CCAHA print a digitally restored facsimile instead. She carefully took the structure apart so that Manager of Digital Documentation Michelle Dauberman could digitally capture both photographs. Michelle reduced the appearance of tears and wrinkling in the digital images. She then overlaid the two images to function like the original and printed a full-color facsimile. Meanwhile, Rachel cleaned the glass layers and safely sealed together the original structure to ensure its long-term preservation.

Images: Portrait before imaging (left) and the digitally-restored facsimile / The albumen photograph layer of the American ivorytype (left) and the salted paper photograph layer