All within a stone’s throw on the dirt and cobblestone streets of 19th century Philadelphia, a hotbed of art, science, and photography held sway. One enterprising young man, Robert Cornelius, a revered portrait photographer, was caught up in the ferment. In 1839, Cornelius, a metallurgist and amateur chemist, took a picture of himself in the yard behind his family’s gas lighting business at 710 Chestnut Street. It is the oldest photographic portrait of a human and the first self portrait ever taken with a makeshift camera. One Philadelphia conservator, Rachel Wetzel, is on the hunt to find and preserve what remains of the groundbreaking photographer’s brief career.
A series of his busy portrait studios ran along the diagonal constellation of art and science institutions of the day around 8th and Market Streets. Lodge Alley, now Ranstead Street, was where Cornelius set up the first photographic studio in the city, the second one of its kind in the country. The Victorian photographer was on the cusp of Philadelphia’s booming photography industry, ushering in the daguerrotype era of the 1840’s. Captivated by the new medium, Cornelius adapted his technical background to churn out scores of fine photographic portraits, some 54 of which are known to still exist today. It was the fashion for business leaders to sit still for “R. Cornelius” and to have themselves recorded for posterity. Cornelius also prepared silver coated copper plates for Joseph Saxton who took a daguerreotype of Central High School, the oldest surviving photograph in America.
“Cornelius partnered with Paul Beck Goddard, a chemist at Penn, and together the two discovered the use of bromine as a sensitizer that helped accelerate exposure times,” said Rachel Wetzel, photograph conservator for Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts. “Cornelius had a chemistry background as well, so he would have had a grasp on how halogens work. The discovery is attributed to Goddard, but it was well known the two worked together and it was a clear partnership.”
Drawing from examining historic records, Wetzel suspects that the two were trying to solve a problem in secret for their own gain, giving the process a more commercially functional purpose. They kept this information close. Eventually it was leaked and other daguerreotypists began sensitizing their plates with bromine and iodine, opening up the possibility for more numerous and viable photographic portrait studios in Philadelphia.
“My field is pretty tiny,” said Wetzel. By her estimation, there may be less than 200 conservators like herself in the entire world. She came to the work by way of pharmacy school, chemistry, art history, and paper and object conservation. Her painstaking craft takes a certain quirky mindset. “When I was a child I remember lining up tiny plastic toy figures in a row and it had to be just so,” she said.
Wetzel, whose self-described messy work area, is actually tidy enough for a small library of books and reference materials, tools, a desktop computer, and portable unit for photographing small daguerrotypes on her quest to find newly-attributable Cornelius photographs.
Some early photographic conservation methods innocently rendered more harm than good. The Hippocratic Oath for conservators now could be posited as “Above all, do nothing that is not reversible.”
“I do everything by hand with real materials. All the media we use are soluble with a chemical,” Wetzel said, who conducts studies on new conservation techniques for the fugitive, silvery tracings of vintage daguerrotypes. She sometimes initiates research out of pocket. Wetzel is resigned to the dearth of grant money available for the specialized, arcane pursuits of a photograph conservator. Yet these professionals are the vanguard, reeling in the fading and ephemeral evidence of what and whom came before us.
“I want these to last for many generations from now. Children today have no idea of [analog] cameras and film,” she said. “Even the tactile experience of holding a beautiful photographic print is foreign to them.” She adds, “The way we talk about photography today has to be erased for us to understand the daguerrotype period.”
Cornelius was an innovator at the intersection of art and science, driven by the desire to bring photography to the forefront. The new medium caught on quickly in Philadelphia for commercial use, but it was still years away from being a reliably profitable venture. After Cornelius opened his studio on Ranstad Street in 1841, he abandoned photography three years later, presumably broke and frustrated, and went back to working for his family’s lamp-making business. The father of the world’s first “selfie” died in 1893 and now rests in Section J, Lot 63 at Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Follow the progress of the Robert Cornelius Daguerreotype Project on Facebook.