170-Year-Old Photo of Cincinnati To Be Recreated

As part of this year's FotoFocus, one project seeks to connect Cincinnati's past and present

click to enlarge Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter, Cincinnati Panorama of 1848, 1848. Daguerreotype. - Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter, Cincinnati Panorama of 1848, 1848. Daguerreotype.

On Sept. 24, a niche of Cincinnati history will be revisited and with it revelations of progress will follow.

In aged panoramic photographs, the Ohio River flows calmly as steamboats float along its edges; they’re backdropped by a cityscape speckled in arching Catholic cathedrals, burgeoning industry and quaint storefronts.

The images were captured in 1848, and taken by Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter. In late September of that year, they set up a camera on a rooftop in Newport, Ky. and traced its lens across the Ohio River. From it, eight daguerreotype plates created a panoramic view of the Queen City.

And now, 170 years later, a team of photographers are working to recreate what was cutting-edge back then, but with the modern age’s best photographic tech. 

“The image, which came to be known as the Cincinnati Panorama of 1848, won top awards for its technique and artistry,” a press release reads. “At a time when most photographs were confined to portraits, this innovative work attracted worldwide attention and survives as the oldest comprehensive photograph of an American city.”

Hosted by Cincy Stories, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Cincinnati Museum Center and Hasselbald Cameras, Panorama of Progress: Building a City in the Photographic Age will be a participant of 2018’s FotoFocus Biennial (check back Oct. 3 for a cover story on FotoFocus). As a whole, the project seeks to showcase the progress of the city and its people. For a week leading up to Panorama of Progress' reveal — the grand opening is 7 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Main Library (800 Vine St., Downtown) — photographers will partner with Hasselblad Camera’s (one of the world’s oldest photography brands) to recreate the cityscape once captured by Fontayne and Porter, but in their own point of view. The exhibit will run through Oct. 31. 

The original 1848 photos can be seen here — if you zoom in and scroll, each contains yellow markers that reveal various historical nuggets about what’s pictured. The images were produced via a method known as daguerreotype, which was invented in 1839 and is still esteemed for its high-level clarity. Flash-forward to 2006, the photos were made digital through microscopy equipment at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y.

Chris Ashwell, creative director of Cincy Stories, notes that if you zoom in enough, you can even see faces of past Cincinnatians milling about and peering out windows. 

“It's impossible not to think, ‘Wow I wonder what that person’s story was? I wonder what they did and how they got to that point that day,’ ” he remarks in an email about the photo and event. “Personally I hope this is a reminder that, while it's too late to get those individual’s stories, it's not too late to share yours. Your story has value both now and to future generations so share it anyway you can.”

Though Ashwell says that the photography project is new for Cincy Stories to take on, the mission is the same: to empower community members to share their stories and bring people together. In the future, he hopes the hundreds of stories they've collected will act as a “time capsule of sorts” of the Queen City's people. 

“We saw the 1848 image not so much as one image of our city, but rather as thousands of individuals stories, hopes, dreams and determinations,” Ashwell says. “The city is not the buildings or the businesses. It's the people. Our hope is when people visit the gallery they will be inspired by the potential stories both the original and recreation have to tell and in turn that creates a shared feeling of belonging to the greater city. “

According to a press release, visitors will be able to interact with the two images — past and present — and see them dissolve into one another to witness just how much has changed.

For more information and special gallery events, click here.