I find pocket microscopes like the Carson MM-200 Pocket Microscope to be a necessary tool in my work with historical photographs. This inexpensive scope combined with the information and photo samples available at the www.graphicatlas.org, help me to identify historic photographic materials and processes. Being able to recognize a photographs support material, binding and surface characteristics are essential for accurately dating and caring for a historic photographic prints. While the material of old images might look similar to the naked eye, under 60X microscope, the conservator or researcher can see the crackled surface of an old albumen print or notice that the Collodion baryta layer blocks the paper fibers.
The Graphic Atlas is an excellent web-resource that list various pre-photographic, photographic and photo-mechanical processes used. The site includes formats ranging from woodblocks prints and tintypes to Polaroids and ink-jet prints, which helps to make sense of the materiality of photographs and other printing formats.
While I tend to be more interested in the cultural and historic information that can be gleaned from old photographs, I have to admit that i find the quasi-scientific side of photo analysis to be fun and interesting as well. As a scholar working in the digital humanities, I feel like I should embrace both.
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