This 120° panoramic image of the Cincinnati riverfront, properly titled Daguerreotype View of Cincinnati. Taken from Newport, Ky, was reassembled from a later series of 8 × 10 film negatives.1 The original panorama consisted of eight full-plate (6.5 × 8.5") daguerreotypes and was taken in September 1848 by Porter and Fontayne (although most likely just by Porter). It shows a two mile stretch of the Cincinnati riverfront, from the Public Landing to the town of Fulton. Here is an 1855 map for reference:
Cincinnati was first settled in 1788 and by the middle of the nineteenth century it was the sixth largest – and fastest growing – city in the US with a population of 115,000 (half of whom were mostly German immigrants). It was also the largest inland port (8000 arrivals a year) and the second largest inland shipyard in America
The panorama is not only the first photograph of the Cincinnati waterfront but the earliest surviving photo of any American city. It is also the earliest image of inland steamboats, of a railroad terminal and of freed slaves. It may very well be one of the most important American photographs ever taken.
Here are cropped, but otherwise un-retouched scans of the film negatives:3
Charles H. Fontayne (1814–1901) and William Southgate Porter (1822–1889) were daguerreians with a studio in the Franklin Buildings in Baltimore around 1844–1845. Fontayne left to start a studio in Cincinnati and Porter became sole owner of the Baltimore Gallery on 20 May 1846. Porter experimented with panoramic images and, on 22 May 1848, he produced a seven-panel daguerreotype of the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia:
Porter soon rejoined Fontayne at his 30 West Fourth Street studio in Cincinnati and on Sunday, 24 Sept 1848 they set up their camera on a rooftop in Newport, Kentucky and took the eight-plate panorama.4 They elaborately framed and matted the plates and began displaying them. In 1849 the panorama won first prize at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and at the Maryland Institutes’ Exhibition of the Mechanical and Fine Art. It was even among the American daguerreotypes sent to the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851.
Fontayne and Porters partnership dissolved sometime around 1854–1855. In 1855 Fontayne was advertising life-size photographs at a new gallery in Cincinnati. In 1856 he moved to Cleveland and assisted James F. Ryder in making “solar enlargements.” He later invented a high-speed photo printer5 and in 1858 moved to New York City but within the year was back in Cincinnati. Finally, in 1891, he is listed as residing in Passaic, New Jersey. Porter, on the other hand, mostly stayed put. He continued to maintain his studio and gallery in Cincinnati, at various addresses, until 1873, when he moved his studio across the river to Covington, Kentucky where he is listed in directories as late as 1887:
After Fontayne left Cincinnati the panorama remained with Porter. The Cincinnati Times Star reported that it was displayed at James Landy’s gallery in 1887 but otherwise it remained unseen until it was loaned to the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in 1912. The panorama, still in it’s original frame and was hung in the old Main Library for years.
In 1947 the new Library director Carl Vitz bought the plates from Porter's son. Although the Library allowed them to be professionally photographed several times they were removed from general view: too fragile for public display.
In 2007 the PLCHC sent the plates to the George Eastman House for restoration, where, after apparently some discussion of who was responsible if it went badly, the plates were disassembled, cleaned. then sealing in argon.6 The conservators created high-res digital scans using a 16–32× Zeiss Axio stereo microscope as a record and researchers at the University of Rochester then developed several novel image analysis techniques to digitally restore the image:7
To capture all of the detail present in the original image the Eastman conservators photographed 1440 1024×768 tiles for each plate:8
Finally, coming full circle, the Library put the restored panorama back on public display in an interactive exhibit on 21 May 2011.
1. The 8 × 10 film negatives, possibly copies of the set taken by the Langley Photo Co. in the 1940s, were scanned and painstakingly reassembled in Photoshop by my Dad, the master photography historian. It should be noted that he prepared these to look good when printed in B&W, hence the contrastiness.
2. Of the 60 boats pictured 17 can be identified by name. They are (l→r) the Lancaster, the Wave, the Colorado, the Highland Mary No. 2, the Doctor Franklin No. 2, the Gen. Worth, the Embassy, the Car of Commerce, the Daily Line, the Brooklyn, the Orleans, the John Hancock, the Meteor, the Ohio Belle, the Palestine, the Cincinnatus, and the New England.
3. All of these images are courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, which your narrator has obtained written permission to display here. Special thanks to John Reusing and Patricia van Skaik of the Library.
4. Based on the boats and buildings, the low water level, the foliage, the shadows, as well as the apparent inactivity on the riverfront, and corroborated by historical boat manifests and construction records, water level data and local weather reports, Carl Vitz and Capt. Frederick Way suggest that the panorama was taken in the early afternoon of Sunday, 24 Sept 1848 from York Street in Newport. See: Vitz, Carl. “A Cincinnati Daguerreotype.” Address to the Cincinnati Literary Club, 20 Oct 1947 (available in it’s manual typewritten glory here).
The clock tower of the Second Presbyterian Church, less than 1 mm dia. on the original plate, had eluded Vitz and Way but was finally legible after the Eastman/Rochester restoration. It read 1:55 pm:
5. US patent 25,540. Photographic Printing-Machine. Charles Fontayne. 20 September 1859.
6. For high-res zoomable versions of all eight plates, as well as historical annotations, see the PLCHC’s Cincinnati Panorama of 1848. The University of Rochester presents four complete plates as zoomable high-res images here. A large, zoomable, version of the entire panorama is available at the Ohio Memory Project.
7. The Eastman scan of plate 4 is available as a dataset from Ross Messing’s University of Rochester CompSci site. Fair warning: the entire image is more than 4 GB! For more information about the restoration see: Tang, X., Ardis, P.A., et. al. “Digital Analysis and Restoration of Daguerreotypes” 2010. Proceedings of the SPIE. Which is online as a PDF.
8. For a total of 1.132 gigapixels per plate or 9.06 gigapixels total. For a point of comparison the largest current CCD sensor, in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope camera designed by Nobel laureate Charles Kao, is 3.2 gigapixels. The largest commercially available CCDs, such as the Hasselblad H4D or the Leica RC30 are in the 60–80 megapixel range.
19 Dec 2008, updated 16 May 2012 ‧ Photography