University of Rochester

Cincinnati Waterfront Panorama Daguerreotype

Plate 2
(read more about this plate)

This is a digital rendering of a photograph of the Cincinnati waterfront taken in 1848—more than a decade before the Civil War—by Charles Fontayne and William Porter. On this page are four of the eight plates that make up the larger panorama.

Owned by the Cincinnati Public Library, it is one of the most astounding examples of daguerreotype (the first known photographic method) in existence today. The clarity of each of its eight copper panels is equivalent to a 140,000-megapixel digital image, thousands of times better than high-end commercially available digital cameras today.

It is one of the the oldest photographs of an urban area in existence, and the largest daguerreotype of its age. Yet its richness was largely unknown until three years ago, when conservators at the George Eastman House, in Rochester, imaged the plates under a microscope and developed a method of protecting them from further deterioration. Because of the astounding resolution of the image, however, even small specs of dust and scratches obscured pertinent information. Physically cleaning the plates would have been too risky given their age and the chemical process used to create them, so the conservators turned to computer scientists at the University of Rochester. The computer vision experts devised a novel method of teaching a computer to identify and repair imperfections in the digital images of the plates.

Zoom in, and you will notice that the clarity does not diminish. There are numerous historical treasures buried in this daguerreotype including images of freed slaves and incredibly detailed views of buildings, signs, and steamboats that are no longer in existence.

Plate 4
Cholera arrives: An outbreak of cholera, a deadly disease spread by contaminated drinking water, hit the town a year after the photo was taken. In the lower left portion of this photograph you can see two men with buckets gathering water. You also notice that they are at the bottom of a natural ditch caused by water runoff. There used to be an outhouse at the top of that ditch, historical records indicate.

Plate 3
The downtown mashes together industrial, commercial, and residential lifestyles in extremely close quarters, the likes of which would not be seen in any modern American city. Author Charles Dickens, who passed through the city on an American excursion, noted that it was one of the cleanest downtown areas of the time, yet clearly visible in the photograph are exposed piles of timber, abandoned carts and wagons, and piles of debris of all kinds. Also in view are peoples’ undergarments drying on clotheslines just above the heavy industry of the waterfront.

Signs of the times: Looking at the signs tells a lot about the ethos of the town at the time. For instance, there are plenty of stores advertising whiskey and other liquors, a huge industry in that era. There are also many German names on signs. At this time, many people were immigrating from Germany and going into business.

Plate 6
First public observatory: In the top middle of this plate is the country’s first public astronomical observatory, funded through ticket sales. Former U.S. President John Quincy Adams gave a speech at the observatory’s opening. This is the only photograph of it, as it had to be moved farther from the town a decade later when pollution from the thriving pork packing industry made it difficult to see the night sky.