A Moment in Time Preserved 163 Years, Newly Accessible


A cityscape of the Cincinnati waterfront was photographed by Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter in 1848. Newly restored, it is back on public view, with touch screens that allow zooming in. 
Credit: Cincinnati Library

CINCINNATI — “I cannot imagine someone hanging out their underwear and having it immortalized.”

Katrina Marshall, the digital services team leader of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, was awestruck by the sight of a pair of 163-year-old bloomers on a balcony clothesline, a detail in the library’s newly conserved daguerreotype of two miles of Cincinnati riverfront. The cityscape was photographed by Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter on a Sunday in September 1848.

At a ceremony on Saturday, after the daguerreotype spent decades in storage, the library returned its jewel to public view, where it will be permanently displayed alongside new touch-screen computer displays that can zoom in on its details.

In its day and now, “The Cincinnati Panorama” has been considered one of the finest examples of North American cityscapes from photography’s earliest decades. It is also thought to be the oldest surviving example of such a work.

“An iconic American treasure” is how Ralph Wiegandt, a senior project conservator at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, described the panorama in a recent interview.

The library had the original eight polished silver plates, each 6 ½ inches by 8 ¼ inches, in storage for over 60 years. Now it has raised about $150,000 to preserve and safely display the irreplaceable plates in special housing at its main building downtown.

As part of the project, the library has also installed two giant touch screens that use digital microscopy to zoom in on high-resolution images from the entire two-mile stretch of riverfront. The Eastman House, with the aid of a Getty Foundation grant, bought equipment to magnify the panorama’s imagery by 16 times. A few individual zooms can be magnified 32 times.

As a result, objects never before easily seen — even by the two photographers, who were across the Ohio River in Newport, Ky. — are becoming clear to the human eye: like those bloomers, or the time on a church clock tower. And searching for them is like entering a kind of time-machine version of Google Earth. (The library will also put a zoomable version on its Web site.)

Patricia Van Skaik, the library’s manager of the genealogy and local history collection, says the panorama, and its enhancements, will be especially valuable for genealogical research. “People now can actually see where ancestors lived or worshiped or worked,” she said. “So it adds rich details to their lives.”

The library has already allowed Robert Brodbeck, a local genealogist who knew he had family living on the rough-and-tumble riverfront back in 1848, to test out the new digital magnifications. Mr. Brodbeck went looking for visual evidence of where they had been. And on Plate 3, just up an embankment from a docked side-wheeler steamboat called the Brooklyn, he found it.

There, on a building selling groceries and liquor, he saw the ornately painted name “Fred Schierberg.”

“When I saw that, I almost jumped out of my pants,” Mr. Brodbeck said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s my great-great-granduncle’s name right on that building.’ It still blows my mind.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com