Glass Plate Negatives

by Stuart Vail


It certainly has been a long journey from the first successful attempts at primitive photography to the present. Long before megapixel digital cameras and photo-polymerisation (a process that etches the circuitry onto the motherboards of virtually every computer), the state-of-the-art was the glass plate negative.

But before that, here’s a little history. Between 1826 and 1839, three men independently discovered the first photographic processes: Joseph Nicéphore Niepce (1765-1833), Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1789-1851), and William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877). British inventor Frederick Scott Archer then expanded their discoveries to produce the first usable glass photographic negatives in 1851, known as the wet collodion negative, which allowed identical prints to be made in quantities.

Archer created a thick flammable liquid, called collodion, by dissolving explosive cellulose nitrate (gun cotton) in ether, alcohol, and potassium iodide, which was flowed onto a sheet of glass the size of the finished print. After plunging the plate into a bath of silver nitrate (turning the collodion into a light-sensitive silver iodide), Archer then put the coated glass plate in a plate holder in the camera, exposed it, and then developed the plate in the darkroom (or if on location, the developing tent). This process had to be completed before the collodion dried, which would have been about five-to-six minutes on a warm day.

By about 1870, the factory-made gelatin dry plate was introduced, and offered a far more convenient method of taking photographs, since the plates could be stored for months after they were used. They were coated with a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion that eliminated the dangerous and messy preparations of wet collodion. No longer was photography limited to the professionals, as amateur photographers and hobbyists alike began using the new medium. By 1888 George Eastman sold the first Kodak cameras and flexible roll films, revolutionizing photography and leading to the decline of glass plate photography, which disappeared altogether by the mid-1920’s.

Offered here are ten images that were “taken” from original glass plate negatives found by Bill Bedard in an old, dilapidated farm house in north-central Washington State. They are circa 1917, as you will see in the text accompanying the second-to-the-last image. This collection of photos seems to record a cross-country trip made by the family in the pictures. Bruce McCalley of the Model T Ford Club of America suggests that they may be driving a 1912 Ford Torpedo Runabout.

Not having the proper darkroom facilities to develop this medium, I scanned the glass plates with a transparency lid and inversed the images in Photoshop, preserving as best I could the original quality. The black corrosion on the glass obviously is a major imperfection, showing the ravages of age and poor preservation, yet it also has created a new art form by lending a certain degree of nature’s indiscriminate “composition” to the end result.

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