145 Historic Photos Recovered from a Shipwreck at the Bottom of the Atlantic Ocean

145 Historic Photos Recovered from a Shipwreck at the Bottom of the Atlantic Ocean

Miraculously, daguerreotypes and ambrotypes survived under 1.3 miles of sea water since 1857

In this episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast, we briefly discuss the recent announcement of 145 historic photographs found in on the sea floor, among the gold coins and wreckage of the SS Central America.

Listen to me discuss this on the podcast

Full episode transcript

Miraculous — 145 Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes Pulled from Shipwreck at the Bottom of the Atlantic


Have you heard about this? Wreckwatch Magazine published a story recently, which was picked up by The Guardian, about a collection of historic photographs recovered from 2,200 meters or 1.3 miles under the ocean. The photographs were found scattered on the sea floor off the coast of North Carolina, among the lost treasures of a steam ship called the SS Central America.

In September 1857, the SS Central America had travelled from San Francisco, and was steaming 270 kilometers off Cape Fear, North Carolina when it was taken by a hurricane. Its passengers included a large number of miners carrying a fortune in gold back from the California Gold Rush.

The Wreckwatch article describes how the storm forced miners, who had risked everything to go make their fortunes in the Gold Rush, decide whether they would jump into the ocean with the heavy gold, and hope somehow to stay afloat, or abandon their fortunes as they went into the water.

Women and children abandoned ship in life boats, and men did the best they could in the stormy waters until they could be fished out of the brine by other vessels. Remarkably, there were more than 150 survivors out of the total 477 on board.

It was the gold that brought explorers to the wreck site, which was first discovered in 1989, and dived using remotely operated vehicles. The site has been visited several times since.

Photographs in the Wreckwatch article show the collections of the photo cases scattered in the silty bed of the ocean amidst shiny gold coins.

145 photographs were recovered and 11 were sent to Boston for conservation. How these daguerreotypes managed to survive is quite a wonder — given how delicate they are, and the ambrotypes too — those are imaged onto glass and are understandably quite fragile. 

The article says that the ones in best condition were the ones that were sealed in the best cases, some made of wood wrapped with leather, and others in an early form of thermoplastic.

It’s haunting and eerie to see these faces from the deep, not knowing if the people in the photographs survived the wreck. One particularly captivating photo shows a beautiful young woman in a dark dress with lots of lace, and her lustrous, jet black curls cascading down onto her bare shoulders.

You can see samples of the surviving photographs, which are all portraits of unidentified people, on the Wreckwatch site or on The Guardian site. 

That’s all I’ve got for this episode, thanks for listening and I’ll Talk to you again real soon.

Links and Sources

Wreckwatch Magazine: Read the story here (requires a free registration)

The Guardian: Doomed ship of gold’s ghostly picture gallery is plucked from the seabed

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