When I came across the photograph at right in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, it did not stand out. It is a circa 1858 view of a Philadelphia mental hospital, and while the age is notable, that would not necessarily be enough to arrest my attention.
So, why did this image catch my eye?
To be fair, it wasn’t the digital image in this case, but the catalog description. The medium field describes this as a microphotograph, and the linked record for LOT 13127 gives the diameter of the image as 1 millimeter. That’s right, this photograph, where the scan reveals building details, and even a group of people standing out front if you look closely, would literally fit on the head of a pin.
My attention was officially grabbed, so I pulled LOT 13127, which contains two such microphotographs. And this is what I found:
Even now you likely cannot see the photographs! I zoomed in further. Note the penny for scale and that red arrow, which points to the photograph itself. Through digital scanning, you don’t have to rely on a microscope to see the photograph, as might have been required in the 19th century.
Working with an historical collection means sometimes getting asked questions about our oldest, biggest, most rare, most valuable photograph, print, poster, and so on. Those are the kinds of questions that are often quite difficult to answer. Dates – especially for objects hundreds of years old – are not easy to verify. Rarity and value are subjective and variable.
But if anyone ever comes asking for our smallest photographs, I’ll know just where to look!
Update (6/14/12): Looks like we caught your eye, too! We’ve had numerous inquiries from those curious to learn more about microphotography. An English instrument maker and inventor named John Benjamin Dancer pioneered the process in the 1840s. This article about a collection of Dancer’s microphotographs at the University of Cambridge offers more about how these small images were used, and the process behind them.
- Explore other 19th century photographic processes in our guide to Popular Photographic Print Processes Represented in the Prints and Photographs Division. The first fifty plus years of photography were full of innovation as pioneers explored the new technology.
- Be amazed by more Fascinating Facts About the Library of Congress, including that the smallest book in the Library is about the same size as our microphotographs. The pages can only be turned using a needle!