My glass negative


This intriguing image is a glass plate negative from around 1900.

It is a dry plate film, an invention that replaced wet plate photography from the 1870s on. Dry plate was an improvement of film technology that avoided the mess and labour involved in wet plate collodion photography. In that difficult process, sheets of glass were manually prepared in a darkroom immediately prior to taking    a photograph, and developed immediately after. Dry plate, like today’s films, was purchased ready to use, and could be processed at any time.

The format is quarter plate, 3¼” x 4¼” or 83mm x 108mm, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The active chemical in dry plate was still silver bromide but was now suspended in    a gelatin rather than collodion emulsion, thus avoiding the ‘wet’ preparation stage. Improvements to the gelatin emulsion through heating the mixture dramatically increased light-sensitivity (ISO) as you can see on the label below.

Dry plate film was manufactured from 1878 and was a revolution in photography because commercially manufactured film could be purchased as desired, used at any time and developed at any time. The standard support was a sheetof glass with the film emulsion already applied. Flexible cellulose film base took over in the early decades of the 20th century.

My glass plate negative has no brand on it so it’s anybodies guess who manufactured. It might have been Kodak, but there were numerous other brands of film available, like this one:





A document scan  picks up the surface detail of the negative.

Since the provenance of the negative is unknown, except that is was purchased in Gippsland, no camera can be guessed at; was it a commercial photographer or a family member behind that camera? The neat arrangement of figures suggests a commercial hand at work.


Positive image. Click on the image to see the faces and fashions more clearly

The positive image show it as a family group in Victorian or Edwardian dress; the young man’s suit and tie suggests the latter period. The family is grouped around the matriarch in white bonnet. Four generations are pictured, a notable occasion worthy of a formal photograph in those days of infant mortality and early death.

They seem neither wealthy nor poor, and the scene could have been in the country or the city. Their neat clothes contrast with the untidy architecture. It is notable that all the women wear white. Frustratingly, there are not enough firm clues to be certain about the photograph’s details. It’s full of stories, but you have to make them up yourself.


Never mind the quality…


Washington, D.C., circa 1917, Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative

I’m constantly struck by the high technical quality of old commercial photographs. This image from 1917 is so sharp and clear it could be an advertisement for tailoring or wool manufacturing, “never mind the quality, feel the width.” In that era the combination of technical prowess, quality materials and the market for records of individualism made it a golden age of the studio portrait.

This one shows a bright and ambitious young American man, professional and eager for assignment. The informal desktop pose, hands in pocket, suggests readiness and practicality; the clear penetrating gaze, capability for the job in hand. He’s a Protestant citizen with a promising future.

The image comes from the website which publishes archival vintage photographs of general interest. This one is of interest, it shows a young man at the start of his famous career: J. Edgar Hoover, future head of the FBI.

Lyle Fowler – male operator

Lyle Fowler, ‘Male operator standing beside 50 ton winch head manufactured by Marfleet and Weight, ca 1941-42’

Lyle Fowler (1891-1969) was a Melbourne commercial photographer who specialised in industrial and architectural subjects. He worked from the 1920s right through to the 1960s. The State Library has his archive of prints and negatives, a huge collection – I gave up after looking at 1200 of them on their website.

The image above is typical of his industrial work, a well-made record of the client’s product. This one is from a full-plate (16x21cm) glass negative. Was glass-plate used for its dimensional stability on technical subjects, or just the photographer’s old-fashioned preference? Note how the background has been blocked out to remove distractions. It gives the image an appealing strangeness.