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  1. #1
    winger's Avatar
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    historical glass negatives questions

    Someone posted an ad on the local Craigslist saying he'd bought some old glass negatives and wanted to find someone who could contact print them. I e-mailed back, sure, I can. So, now that I've started printing these, I'm more and more curious about what it was like to do this "back when". I don't know exactly when these were taken because I don't know the landmarks in them. I'd guess early 1900's, maybe late 1800's based on the clothes I've seen. There seems to be a range of subjects and photographer's skill. They could cover a wider time period, too.

    What speed would they have been? Would most people have coated their own or could they buy them? Would the emulsions have been kinda similar to what we have now? How many people were using glass negs? When did they first start being used?
    I've really only dealt with film and got into it in the 70's as a kid, so I don't know much about the history of photography (besides the really big names). Feel free to go off on informative tangents.

  2. #2
    Ian Grant's Avatar
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    Dry plates have been around since 1871, modern gelatin based emulsions were invented by Richard Maddox, and were mass produced by the end of the decade, they took over rapidly because they were so convenient.

    So it's most likely they are silver gelatin negatives. Emulsion speeds were improved constantly over the years so would have ranged from around roughly 6 ISO (by modern standards) to around 25-100 ISO by the 20's & 30's and eventually to over 400 ISO by the time glass plates disappeared from mainstream use in the 60's/70's.

    Back in the 70's I printed a lot of glass plates for my local Museum service, it's fun but some can be very tricky as modern papers are not really as good a match as the papers which would have been used at the time the images were made.

    Ian

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    it's fun but some can be very tricky as modern papers are not really as good a match as the papers which would have been used at the time the images were made.
    Ian, Could you elaborate?

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    Ian Grant's Avatar
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    Yes. Early glass plates were developed to much higher contrasts often with quite vigorous Pyro developers, exposures weren't always as accurate as there were no meters so negatives can often be quite dense. In addition they were usually contact printed.
    The early silver gelatin papers of that era had a tonal scale that suited those negatives, and Printing Out Paper was very common which is self masking during exposure and so excellent for printing early negatives.

    Modern films are quite different with much finer grain and they are processed to a much lower gamma/contrast, the changes in working practice really accelerated with the introduction of 35mm cameras/film and led to the huge increases in quality that were need for enlarging such small negative. Papers evolved in tandem to match these changes.
    If you look at modern prints of images by 30's photographers like André Kertész they have lost some of the quality and richness that's there in the original contemporary prints. It's the same with even older negatives and is the major reason why POP paper was still in production until very recently.

    There have been a number of articles written over the years about the problems of obtaining good tonality from old glass plates and they always conclude that modern silver gelatin papers are a compromise, you trade of a potential loss of quality for convenience.

    Ian

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    A little fill in information culled from "A New History of Photography," edited by Michael Frizot, ISBN 3-8290-1328-0.

    As early as 1839 Abel Niépce, a Frenchman and younger cousin of the more famous Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, was experimenting with glass plates, subbed with albumen, and sensitized with silver nitrate. These initial attempts were very slow, slower than calotypes. By 1849, an Englishman, Scott Archer began developing the wet plate collodion process, which was much faster. Exposure times were measured in seconds, sometimes as little as 1 second, as opposed to the minutes needed for Abel Niépce's glass plates. Dry plate photography followed, I think, in the 1880's. Kodak's Tech pub F4016 indicates that TMX is offered on glass plates today.

    I have printed some glass plates loaned to me by a friend who lived in Colorado. I'm guessing that these were made around the turn of the 19th Century. I think they printed quite well. I used Kodak Polymax RC paper and Dektol. The blown highlights are the result of the scanning process. If I wasn't so lazy, I'd have fixed that in post. The prints look much better.
    Last edited by fschifano; 04-20-2009 at 09:21 PM. Click to view previous post history.
    Frank Schifano

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    Ian Grant's Avatar
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    It's worth adding that many old glass plates will yield quite satisfactory prints on modern papers. It's only when you place them against an original contemporary print off the same negative hat you really appreciate the difference. Usually the modern prints have a compressed tonal range compared to original.

    Other glass negative won't print particularly well at all unless you use POP or other techniques like albumen printing.

    Ian

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ian Grant View Post
    Other glass negative won't print particularly well at all unless you use POP or other techniques like albumen printing.
    I especially like to see them when printed with Carbon or Platinum... the long, straight scale and self-masking properties of those processes seem to allow maximum use of many old negs.

  8. #8
    Jim Noel's Avatar
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    When printed on the material for which they were designed, glass plates make beautiful prints.
    I sometimes print 19th Century glass plates and occasionally early paper negatives.
    I don't attempt to use modern papers, but make salt prints of paper negs and albumen of glass plates since these are the processes for which the negatives were most likely made.
    [FONT=Comic Sans MS]Films NOT Dead - Just getting fixed![/FONT]

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    I'm printing some negs from the turn of the century and fortunately have the original prints from them to match. The negs were well processed originally, probably with strong pyro, and are a little dense. A lot of these old negs I've had dealings with print with more contrast than it would appear they would. Anyway, I'm having to use 45Y to match MG prints with the nicely done originals.

  10. #10
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    Thanks for all the info! The ones I have are a range and some are printing nicely with under 20 seconds (f8, #2ish filter) and others are printing at about 40 seconds. With a couple, I've been able to burn in the sky to get more detail, but a couple are just really dark overall (inside and maybe poorly exposed). I'd guess that all are some type of silver emulsion, but some are more recent. There's also a range of how well they were kept over the years - some have lost parts of their emulsion.
    I'm only contact printing since most are 8x10 and my biggest enlarger is for 4x5. The level of detail is great in most of them and the tones aren't bad (though I don't have old prints from them for comparison).

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