Treasures Revealed Episode 2 – Pannotype Puzzle

Greenish stylized treasure chest with Library and Archives Canada maple leaves at the bottom and rays rising from the chest at the top. Numbered #02. 

In this episode of Treasures Revealed, LAC Head Photo Conservator Tania Passafiume will tell us about her discovery in the collection of a very rare type of early photograph called a pannotype. She will explain what it is, how it was made and what makes it so special and rare.

Duration: 17:59

File size: 18 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: September 2, 2021

  • Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 2

    Théo Martin (TM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    Welcome to Treasures Revealed!

    In this podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.

    They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will showcase our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.

    Now, on to Episode 2, “Pannotype Puzzle.”

    Tania Passafiume (TP): Yeah, ’cause it’s unique, it’s unique to us, right? For us it’s unique, we never had, and it’s a treasure—I find it a treasure—’cause no one knew we had it. And there it was, and once we had it, it was like this exciting—even though we don’t know much about it, I think it’s still a treasure, because it’s our only one that we know.

    Okay, hi, I’m Tania Passafiume, I’m the Head Photo Conservator here at Library-Archives Canada. I’ve been working here since January of 2005.

    TM: What is a pannotype, and how was it discovered at Library and Archives Canada? Let’s let Tania tell us.

    TP: So a pannotype is a photograph on leather. The word panno, pannotype, so pannos is a Latin word for “cloth.”

    Well, it’s interesting. Can I tell you the story? Okay, this is my story. So a few years ago, I’m doing this census on case objects. So case objects could be daguerreotypes, which are metal, photographs on metal, one of the earliest types of photographs; or ambrotypes, which is glass, photographs on glass; or tintypes, which is metal. And they were all put in these cases, meaning they were in these leather or plastic cases, sealed in these beautiful, like I said, leather or paper or early plastic cases.

    And anyway, so I was doing this census. So, we have about 300 of these case objects, and I just LOVE case objects. And I trained a lot before I came to Library-Archives on case objects, so I’m really happy to look at all of ours. And you can kind of find fun things hidden in the cases. So, I was working on this project, and in some of our containers, there was a container with six objects in it, so six case items in this container. And I did the first five and the last one, man, that one just looked too weird. And, you know, you see a lot of these over the years, and, you know, I’m like, “That’s not a daguerreotype, that’s not an ambrotype, it’s not a tintype, but what is it?” And the thing with photography, which has been always interesting, photographers have always changed the processes, right? So sometimes you come across processes, and you’re just like, “What did they do? What were they mixing to make that?”

    And anyways, I put it off and put it off. I have a lot of work to do. There’s 35 million photographs here at LAC, so I have a lot of work to do. So I just put it off, put it off, put it off, put it off. And finally, I said one morning, “Okay, let’s just look at this.” So I took it, I opened the case. It’s a man, a young man, sitting, it’s a sitter, and I took it out. So we have special tools to take out the objects from case objects, so I don’t recommend it at home, but we have this suction tool. I took it out, and I looked on the back, and on the back, there’s a piece of paper. And it was kind of a cardboard kind of paper, and on it, you could read, someone had written, it was like cut off of some writing, and it said “H-O-L,” and underneath it had some, I couldn’t really figure out what the words were, but the last word was “acid,” and there’s a line underneath it.

    So I thought, “Okay, that’s interesting. But this doesn’t have a seal, doesn’t have a tape. So someone has either been in here already.” It’s common that people would change the insides of case objects, ’cause they’re quite old, so you can’t really trust what you find back there sometimes. But it wasn’t sealed, so either it was never sealed, it didn’t have any remnants that it was ever sealed, so I decided to remove this paper—it was easily to be removed—and there I saw it. And it’s, I saw it, and it was leather. It was rough leather, it was not processed leather, and I immediately knew it was a pannotype. I’ve seen these before, never here, and I thought, “This is really exciting!”

    So I turned it around, and I took off the cover glass, and I realized the cover glass was really dirty. And that’s why I couldn’t really see what it was. And there it was, this beautiful, beautiful image of a young man, and it’s on patent leather, so it’s kind of shiny, and it was in such good condition.

    And that’s the thing too, these were made about 1853 to 1880s, and in the books, when you read our books on conservation, it says it’s hard to find a really good condition of one, because the leather is deteriorated at this time. So then I did a little bit of research on pannotypes, and I realized they’re basically made like an ambrotype for glass, but what they do is when they make the ambrotype, the emulsion, they put alcohol in nitric acid. And that goes back to the piece of paper. And it said “H-O-L”: alcohol and acid. So maybe that paper really was there the whole time, and that’s part of the piece.

    So immediately, I emailed all of the archivists, photo archivists, and they immediately were quite excited, ’cause they told me that they don’t have another piece like this in the collection. And in our system, someone had said it was an ambrotype, but it was a pannotype.

    Unfortunately, we don’t know who the sitter is, but it’s in amazing condition, and it’s our first pannotype, so I think it’s a big treasure—and I found it!

    TM: Pannotypes were a bit of a trend between 1853 and the early 1880s. They were made by a method similar to that for ambrotypes. But instead of glass, a piece of cloth or leather was used as a support. What is interesting is that pannotypes were made by placing drops of a dilute solution of nitric acid in alcohol onto an existing ambrotype. This was done to allow the photographer to remove the emulsion, which contained the actual image, from the glass support, and place this emulsion onto a new support, such as a piece of leather.

    TP: So, it’s very complicated. And people have done it. I’ve seen modern-day versions. I mean, it’s unusual to see it, ’cause who wants a photograph on leather? Like it’s just, like, why would you want that now?

    And the reason they did it, one of the reasons we think they did it, was because it was, like, daguerreotypes would be in cases, but they would be easily scratched if they weren’t in these cases with glass. And ambrotypes is on glass. And if they were mailed, the glass would break, right? Daguerreotypes could be, if they’re not in the case, they would be bent, but if they were in the case, they wouldn’t be bent in the mail. But tintypes would also be bent in the mail if they weren’t in case, ’cause they’re on tin. So, leather would not be bent in the mail. So I think that’s why they started making more flexible supports.

    And now, you know, it kind of makes sense, because it turned out we used, like, we got into polyester and nitrate negatives, and they were very flexible support. So it’s kind of interesting how the history of photography started that way.

    TM: This pannotype photographic process was presented for the first time in 1853, to the French Academy of Sciences by the firm of Wulff & Co. Instructions for the process were made available for sale by that firm for 100 francs. Pannotypes soon became generally known, with many professional photographers making commercial use of them, as evidenced in surviving advertisements and journal articles. Customers were interested in the process at the time because pannotypes were believed to be more stable, since they could not break because they were not printed on glass like ambrotypes, nor could they be easily scratched like daguerreotypes or bent like tintypes. We know very little about how the pannotype process was developed and practised here in Canada, but we do know that there were several prominent photographers using this process, including George Robinson Fardon (1807–1886) from Victoria, British Columbia. His images of “Portrait and Views on patent leather” were sent to the London International Exhibition in 1862, and they eventually became part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s holdings.

    Tania tells us more about this census that she is doing on LAC’s cased photographic items, at LAC’s Preservation Centre in Gatineau, Quebec.

    TP: Well, I started quite a few years ago, because I wanted to learn more about our collection of case objects. And I found that when LAC moved to this building—this new building—many, many years ago, they made these containers with the case objects. And since it’s been, like, over many, many years, over 20 years, we’ve been here for many years, the boxes, the containers that we made, are not up to our standards anymore. And so I had a whole project of rehousing the containers, rehousing the daguerreotypes and the ambrotypes and the tintypes, and in doing so, I said, “Well, I should look at the objects then.”

    I found a few that have original sealing tape, so I will not touch those, ’cause it is rare having original sealing tape, even though the sealing tape is not functioning anymore; it has holes or, but we have amazing conditions in our vaults, and I think it’s more rare to keep the sealing tape than to destroy it.

    You know, conservation is kind of judgment call sometimes, and I kind of like the oldness of things, which is kind of hard for a conservator. But, like, I love tarnish on daguerreotypes, where some conservators don’t like the tarnish on daguerreotypes.

    But anyways, so I was doing this census, and a lot of it is, we have, like, dirty cover glass; it just needs a clean cover glass. And in doing so, I’m looking at all the different cases, because it was all manufactured then. Like you could go out and say, “I want this size.” It came in standard sizes. “I want this size. I want this case. I want this preserver, this mat.” And there’s, like, books out there—like, I’m doing research on, you know, who made that mat and who made that case, and there’s not a lot of information, but there’s quite a bit. Even plates, the daguerreotype plate, there’s stamps on them, and you can identify, like, where that plate was made, even in the States or in Europe. In Canada, it’s interesting, because a lot of photographers from the States would come up and photograph people here, and so, there’s a lot more information about the American photographers.

    But anyway, so I’m in this survey—and we still, like, the other day, like, I’ll find a tintype in another container, like, totally not in the correct container, so I really don’t know exactly the numbers cut down right now. And hopefully in this census, I’ll get those numbers, and I just want to know, you know, different sizes we have, and you know these interesting, like a pannotype. Sometimes there’s ivorytypes in there that, they’re not supposed to be in there. Ivorytype is a photograph also on glass that’s been painted on the back.

    So anyways, I’m just kind of searching, ’cause we have such a big collection, and because I have all this experience from before coming to LAC, I just thought I would use that experience and kind of do a census. But I’m easily distracted from this census, ’cause there’s exhibitions and other preservation work to do, so it’s kind of my downtime. So that’s why it takes a long time to do this project.

    TM: If you’re interested in learning more about these photo techniques, including pannotypes, daguerreotypes and tintypes, head over to Apple Books to download LAC's e-publication Lingua Franca: A Common Language for Conservators of Photographic Materials. This multimedia e-book is free of charge and the first resource of its kind working to establish a common language for photo conservation professionals internationally. Lingua Franca contains six chapters of multilingual definitions of photographic processes, condition issues, treatment options, preventative care, technical studies and provenance. It contains commonly used terms, which are briefly defined and illustrated with photographs, videos and interactive features. We’ll add a link to the e-book in the related links section in the show notes for this episode.

    We asked Tania about the reaction of the other LAC photo archivists and consevators when she told them of her discovery.

    TP: Yeah, they came to see it. I sent them pictures. And, I mean, they got it. They got how exciting it was. Other people were like, “What do you mean?” but as soon as I said “pannotype,” they were like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard about those,” you know, and so it was kind of nice.

    I mean the image is, you know, he’s a handsome man, young man, and unfortunately, they can’t trace how we even have this pannotype in the collection, which is kind of too bad. So it’s just a really nice example, and in really good condition, of a pannotype. After that I kind of got more excited again about looking at the census—looking at more of the case objects, ’cause I want to find another pannotype or something else unique, you know? ’Cause sometimes you can find, like, hair jewellery in the back of them, or notes—I’ve seen things about notes—and really fun stuff, hidden behind these cases, so it was fun to see the pannotype.

    TM: Today, discovering a pannotype is rare, as their durability was very limited because of their inherently fragile qualities. However, the newly discovered pannotype is on patent leather and is in excellent condition. The only difficulty here is that the original glass in the brass mat had begun to deteriorate; however, following some conservation work, the problem has been fixed. Our next step is to share this information with the public, and perhaps to try and solve the next mystery: who is the man in the photograph, and who was the photographer?

    To help us solve this puzzle, you can head over to LAC’s Flickr gallery. There, you will find an album called Treasures Revealed, where we have showcased images from this episode, and from each episode in this series. We will update that album with each episode, giving you a chance to view the treasures that we will be highlighting. You can find the link to the Flickr album on LAC’s podcast page.

    Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Tania Passafiume.

    Treasures Revealed theme song provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

    This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.

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    If you’re interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French-language versions of all of our episodes on our website, Apple podcasts and Spotify. Simply search for “Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.”

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Host: Théo Martin, LAC archivist

Guest: Tania Passafiume, LAC Head Photo Conservator


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