Douglass Daguerreotype Unveiled At University Of Rochester

Dec 7, 2015

This daguerrotype is one of the earliest known images of Fredrick Douglass.
Credit Veronica Volk / WXXI

One of the earliest photographic images of Frederick Douglass is on display at the University of Rochester in the form of a daguerreotype.

Daguerreotypes are a kind of still image. They look mirror-like, and are developed with thin sheets of metal like silver and copper or gold. The medium was popular in the mid-1800s, before any other kind of film process was developed.

The University of Rochester has a exhibit of these relics in the Rush Rhees Library, and they've recently added a daguerreotype of the famous abolitionist. Lori Birrell is the curator of the Fredrick Douglass Papers for the university.

"This is a daguerreotype that was taken just after he moved to Rochester. He's just starting his newspaper The North Star. He's meeting people like Issac and Amy Post who lived here and were also friends with Susan B. Anthony, and so he's really becoming a part of the fabric of Rochester society."

Fredrick Douglas was still a fugitive at the time it was taken, and he gave the pocket-size portrait to Susan B. Anthony.

But not only does the artifact tell a story of culture significance, it is also being studied by researchers for scientific gain. Nicholas Bigelow is a professor of physics and optics.

"We've also learned certain kind of unexpected things, about how some of the dagguerrotype process could be used for nanofabrication of thin metal films."

In other words, it's possible that these daguerreotypists, who didn't even know about atoms yet, could have something to teach us about nanotechnology. (A video of the unveiling of the daguerreotype, by videographer Martin Kaufman is below:)