Image Restoration — Robert Cornelius Daguerreotype

Robert Cornelius was an early photographer who attempted to perfect the daguerreotype. This photo is one of the earliest known photos of an identifiable person. Reportedly, it was taken in October 1839 outside his father’s store.

The photo, as you can see, appears to have some damage—I have no idea if this damage was a part of the original and a result of the technology or if it was just scratched up and eaten away over the years. For the purposes of demonstrating, on an extreme case, what I can do with old photos for genealogists and other family historians, I touched up the photo. My intent was not to make it perfect so that it looks like it was taken yesterday with the latest technology, just to remove enough damage so that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the subject of the photo and not the damage.

In restoring this photo I removed the holes and brown spots as well as many white dots that may have been in the original—sometimes restoring involves fixing problems that were in the original, just like retouching does today.

Two major problems in this photo were the significant white scratches across his neck and face as well as the blue tone on his forehead that gave him a rather corpse-like look.

The white scratches obscured the bottom of the back of his head, his jawline, and his collar line. To resolve these issues I took a cue from the tousled hair on the opposite side and added a curl at the bottom, then darkened up the rest of the hair—he was a young man when this was taken. I shaded in a jawline that approximately matched what I could see on the other side, another photo of him would have helped ensure accuracy in this area. The neck area in the original was completely obscured by scratches, so I used guesswork here. For the purposes of accuracy, I reviewed men’s fashions of the 1830s and noted that they wore elaborate upright collars that covered the entire neck and folded out at the jaw. However, Robert was a chemist and clearly had a scientist’s stereotypical disdain for the idea of a comb. So, based on that and the lack of an obvious white collar sticking out of the side we can see, I am guessing he was like many of today’s “geeks” and didn’t pay much attention to fashion trends. I therefore replicated his skin tone in the neck area, fading down to a shadow. To resolve the dead-smurf look on his forehead, I reduced the blue tone.

The finished product isn’t perfect but I believe that any further modifications would have crossed the line from restoration to “derivative artwork!” My goal was only to restore the photo, not to create a new fabricated image based on the original. A viewer seeing the photo now will focus on the subject of the photo rather than the damage he was hiding behind.

Robert Cornelius