e Preservation of Glass Plate Negatives Greta B January Abstract is paper covers the history of glass plate negatives, the storage of glass plate negatives, handling techniques and common conservation concerns, reformaing of glass plate negatives and the use of scanning and digitization as a means to create preservation and user copies.
Introduction Almost all archives possess some type of photographic collection. Many individuals typically think of “photographs” as plastic-based negatives and slides; but these photographic techniques are relatively recent inventions. Prior to the invention of cellulose nitrate ﬁlm in , photographic emulsions were made on glass supports. ese glass supports are typically referred to as glass plate negatives. e term “glass plate negative” refers to two separate formats: the collodion wet plate negative and the gelatin dry plate. Both of these formats consist of a light sensitive emulsion that is ﬁxed to the glass plate base with a binder. Dozens of photographic techniques have been used within the past years. Each photographic process possesses its own “unique deterioration characteristics” and each process’s degradation is accelerated by slightly diﬀerent factors (Northeast Document Conservation Center, , p. ). Additionally, all photographic processes demand speciﬁc storage and exhibition considerations as well as training in the proper handling and care. Glass plate negatives are no exception. is paper begins with a brief overview of the history of glass plate negatives beginning with their invention in the mid-nineteenth century and their usage through the ﬁrst quarter of the twentieth century. e paper then explores the storage of glass plate negatives including current research on their ideal physical environment, shelving and the use of enclosures and sink mats. e paper then discusses handling techniques (including retrieval) as well as common conservation concerns including the chemical breakdown of the glass, appropriate ways to deal with broken and cracked glass and the problem of image separation from the glass. e paper concludes with a discussion of the reformaing of glass plate negatives and the use of scanning and digitization as a means to create preservation and user copies.
A Brief History of the Two Photographic Processes If the collodionized plate, aer sensitization in the silver bath, is exposed whilst still moist, the process by which the image is obtained, is called the Wet Collodion process; whereas if the sensitized plates are dried, and used aerward at any indeﬁnite time, the process of the operation is denominated the Dry Collodion process. —e Silver Sunbeam, (Towler, , n.p.)
e ﬁrst photography processes were developed during the ﬁrst half of the nineteenth century. Between the years and three separate individuals – Joseph Nicéphore Niepce, Louis Jacque Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox – independently developed the earliest photographic techniques (Vail, , p. -). In the British inventor Frederick Sco Archer expanded on the discoveries of these early photography pioneers and produced the ﬁrst wet plate glass plate negative. e advent of the glass plate negative resulted in an increased interest in photography. Do-it-yourself manuals cropped up during the s and assisted both the amateur and professional photography in the creation of glass plate photographs. In John Towler published e Silver Sunbeam and, in it he outlined the new photographic process in just ten easy steps (!). Towler stated that “the operation of taking a collodion positive on glass consists of the following subdivisions” (Towler, , n.p.): . Preparing the glass plate. . Coating the prepared plate with collodion. . Sensitizing the plate. . Exposing the prepared plate in the camera. . Developing the picture. . Fixing the image. . Drying the plate. . Remove any particles which may be seled on the plate. . Flow the plate with the “purest and most transparent crystal varnish, precisely in the same manner as the plate was covered with collodion” (Towler, , n.p.). . Apply a dark background to the plate in the form of black velvet or paper. Towler’s publication (and the many others like it) helped foster the growing interest in glass plate photography. is interest eventually spread to all reaches of the earth and to almost every walk of life. From een Victoria to Mahew
Brady, glass plate photography captured intimate views of royalty, scenes of war and destruction and pastoral views of everyday life. Frederick Sco Archer’s wet plate negative was produced by spreading a glass plate with collodion, a ﬂammable liquid made of cellulose nitrate and ether. e glass plate was then placed into a bath of silver nitrate which turned the collodion into a photosensitive silver iodide (Vail, , p. ). e wet plate was then exposed in a camera. e photographer then had approximately ﬁve minutes to complete the exposure before the wet plate dried. e exposed plate was then protected with a coat of varnish (Hendricks, , pp. –). e wet plate negative was in use from the early s until the late s, before being almost completely replaced by the more convenient dry plate negative process. In , Richard Leach Maddox developed the ﬁrst practical dry plate negative process. Maddox’s technique involved ﬁxing a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion to a glass plate. e plate was then allowed to dry before it was exposed in the camera. e dry plate process featured many of the same steps as the wet plate process but utilized diﬀerent sensitizing, ﬁxing and development solutions. e dry plate photographic technique was used from the s until the ﬁrst quarter of the twentieth century, when it was then surpassed in both ease and popularity by the gelatin silver paper negative and the gelatin silver negative on celluloid roll ﬁlm (Vail, , p. ). e dry plate negative process is still used occasionally for highly specialized photography, such as the creation of exact astronomical measurements (Keefe and Inch, , p. ).
Storage of Glass Plate Negatives While the two separate glass plate negative photographic methods are chemically diﬀerent from each other, they have very similar storage, care and handling needs. e proper storage of glass plate negatives begins with establishing acceptable temperature and relative humidity levels. Cooler temperatures will slow the rate of chemical reactions that cause degradation, but caution should be taken to avoid too low of a temperature which can render the glass, photographic emulsion and binders brile (Herskovitz, , p. ). e ideal storage environment for glass plate negatives is “less than º Fahrenheit with minimal ﬂuctuation (± degrees), and an ideal relative humidity is % RH with minimal ﬂuctuation (± percent)” (Herskovitz, , p. ). Aer establishing standard temperature and relative humidity levels, negatives should be re-housed in a preservation friendly environment. is can involve removing the negatives from their original wooden studio crates or other suboptimal storage method. Following any uncrating or unboxing, each negative should be re-housed in an individual paper enclosure or sink mat. Selections should also be made regarding appropriate load-bearing boxes and heavy-load capacity shelving (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “How Do I House Glass Plate Negatives?” , p. ).
Individual plates should be placed in loosely-ﬁing buﬀered paper sleeves or four ﬂap envelopes. If seamed envelopes are selected for the storage of plates, side-seamed envelopes should be used in order to prevent the envelope’s adhesives from interacting with the photographic emulsion. Four ﬂap paper envelopes are the ideal storage envelope, as they do not use adhesives and eliminate the risk of a negative chemical interaction between the adhesives and the emulsion. Four ﬂap envelopes are advantageous for other reasons. e ﬂap enclosure also “allows for the examination and even printing [of the plate] without sliding the negative in and out of a sleeve” ( Wilson , , p. ). Aer individually enclosing each negative in an envelope, glass plate negatives should be stored vertically along their longest edge and placed into appropriately sized document boxes. Negatives should be stored with other plates of the same size in order to prevent edge pressure on any odd sized negatives. A small negative can be crushed or moved side-to-side if stored in a box with a group of larger negatives. A large negative in a box with smaller negatives is equally vulnerable. e edges of the larger negative will not receive physical support from its neighbors, and it will be more prone to cracking and breakage (Herskovitz, , p. ). Glass plates should be placed neatly and carefully within the boxes in order to minimize any side-to-side movement and abrasion of the plates. Each box should be interleaved with acid-free corrugated board spacers in order to minimize shiing within the box. ese spacers should be cut to the size of the plates in order to fully support the plates and placed at one inch intervals within the box. Glass plate negatives are generally stored in sturdy P.A.T.-tested document boxes. It is critical that these boxes be of an appropriate size and constructed of a heavy board to support the weight of the glass. Many commercial archival supply companies such as University Products and Gaylord sell document boxes speciﬁcally weighted for glass plate negatives. Many archivists believe it is beer to use a larger quantity of smaller boxes than a fewer number of larger sized boxes in order to prevent strain on the boxes and any staﬀ involved in the handling of the negatives. If a box cannot be ﬁlled, corrugated cardboard ﬁller pieces should be cut to size and placed in the boxes to snug up plates and ﬁll out any extra space in the container. ese ﬁller pieces will keep plates upright and prevent any front-to-back movement within the box. Within the storage facility, the boxes should be placed on shelving units capable of housing glass plate negatives. ere are several factors to consider when selecting appropriate shelving units for glass plates. ese factors include: the shelving unit’s “load rating,” the type of materials used in the construction of the unit and the shelving unit’s ﬁnish (Herskovitz, , pp. –). To judge the necessary load rating for a shelving unit, staﬀ should calculate the number of negatives to be housed, the size of document boxes to be used and the number of boxes able to ﬁt on a shelf. e overall footprint of the storage facility is another important factor to consider when purchasing shelving units. Perhaps two smaller units make more sense than one larger unit when factors such as cart mobility and ease
of retrieval are considered. Shelving units should be made from steel rather than wood. Many of the glues and adhesives used to manufacture plywood have a tendency to oﬀ-gas volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde and acetic acid. Both of these chemicals can be damaging to photographic collections, and their introduction to collection storage should be avoided. Additionally, wood shelving may not meet the necessary load rating. Finally, the shelving unit’s ﬁnish is also of concern. Powder coated ﬁnishes that use no solvents are highly desirable, but several solvent-based ﬁnishes that create a ﬁlm-forming resin of % polyester or acrylic are also acceptable as are two-component epoxy shelving (Herskovitz, , p. ). Boxes of glass plate negatives should not be stacked, but rather the shel’s height should be adjusted to match the height of the boxes. Boxes should also be placed at an accessible height with care taken to avoid locations that are too high or low. is precaution is to prevent any physical strain on staﬀ involved in the retrieval of archival materials. Reaching for a heavy, awkward box from a stretching or stooping position can be dangerous to both the plates and the staﬀ member involved. A ﬁnal step in the creation of proper storage is the labeling of all boxes and shelving units. Each box should be clearly marked with the phrase: “CAUTION. FRAGILE GLASS NEGATIVES. HEAVY.” e storage of broken plates and those with ﬂaking emulsions present added challenges, and additional steps are needed to ensure their protection. Broken plates should be housed in specially constructed protective sink mat enclosures made from corrugated board. e individual plate fragments should be aligned to their proper location within the photograph and small spacers placed between the fragments to prevent further chipping or breaking. e spacers, generally small squares, rectangles or punched circles, are usually constructed of acid-free corrugated board or acid-free mat board (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “How Do I House Glass Plate Negatives?” p. ). Sink-maed plates can be stacked up to ﬁve high inside a shallow print storage box or map storage case. In addition to problems with broken and cracked glass, it is not unusual for glass plates to exhibit problems with ﬂaking emulsion. Plates that exhibit problems with minor ﬂaking, such as a few small edge losses or losses near chips, should be housed in the standard four-ﬂap envelope. e envelope should be labeled on the exterior: “CAUTION: FLAKING EDGES. HANDLE WITH CARE” (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “How Do I House Glass Plate Negatives?” p. ). Glass plates with signiﬁcant ﬂaking that includes hanging ﬂaps or tears of emulsion and/or overall cracking of the emulsion should be treated more aggressively. Preservation copies of the images should be created in order to minimize the need to handle the originals and, the ﬂaking plate should then be placed in a sink mat enclosure and stored ﬂat (Herskovitz, , pp. –). e sink mat enclosure should then be labeled: “FLAKING GLASS PLATE. HANDLE WITH EXTREME CAUTION. USE DUPLICATE COPY.”
Handling Teniques for Glass Plate Negatives e handling of glass plate negatives should be done with extreme care. Glass plates are most vulnerable to cracking and breaking during the periods in which they are handled. Proper handling techniques begin with a properly prepared work surface. A work surface should be a clean, ﬂat, dry table that is free of any debris. e work table should be of adequate size to safely accommodate the document box, the individual negative in its enclosure and any other needed equipment (U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, “How Do I House Glass Plate Negatives?” p. ). Many archivists recommend the wearing of non-vinyl plastic gloves for the handling glass plates. ese types of gloves include both Latex and Nitrile gloves. Coon gloves are not worn as they are too slippery for handling glass and any loose coon ﬁbers may pose a risk of snagging any ﬂaking emulsion (U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, “How Do I House Glass Plate Negatives?” p. ). When working with a plate, always place the emulsion side up. is prevents any debris from scratching the photographic surface. Common sense dictates that glass negatives should never be subjected to pressure or stacking. e tremendous weight of a stack of glass plates places unnecessary stress on the boom plates. Staﬀ and users should be instructed not to press, lean or write on a glass plate. If the negative’s enclosure is to be labeled with its accession number, negative number or box identiﬁcation, it should always be labeled prior to inserting the plate. e retrieval of glass plates from storage also involves a combination of common sense and staﬀ training. e moving and handling of the plates should be done in the plate’s storage orientation - that is with the plate resting along its longest edge (U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, “How Do I Move Glass Plate Negatives?” p. ). A cart should always be used for moving boxes of plates. e use of a cart ensures against any unnecessary strain to the document boxes and any staﬀ involved in the transfer of heavy plates. Any cart used for transporting glass plate negatives should be rated for the weight load of glass and possess pneumatic, air-ﬁlled tires. Carts with common utility casters made from hard rubber or plastic should be avoided as they fail to absorb vibrations. e cart should also possess a locking break and tip/shock sensors (U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, “How Do I Move Glass Plate Negatives?” p. ). e proper loading of a cart is as important as purchasing the proper type of cart. e cart’s shelves should be padded out with moving blankets and/or foam cut to the size of each shelf. Boxes should be placed in the center of the cart with all boxes oriented in the same direction. A cart should never be stacked higher than the height of two boxes in order to prevent the tipping a top-heavy load and/or impeding the cart’s ability to turn corners.
Preservation Concerns e preservation and survival of glass plate negative seems somewhat remarkable given the fragility of the glass itself and the common th century practice of “plate recycling.” roughout the th century, local junk men would purchase old, unwanted glass plates, scrape oﬀ the photographic emulsion and resell the glass to greenhouses and dry-plate manufacturers. e dry plate manufacturers readily purchased this glass, as it could be easily reused and was already cut to standard photographic sizes (Keefe and Inch, , p. ). Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of preserving glass plate negatives is learning to visually distinguish between the two photographic processes. In the words of noted photography conservator Constance McCabe, “Various chemical processes were employed to create these negatives, and deterioration may have taken place over time. e eﬀects of these and unknown factors give the negatives image appearances that may be diﬃcult or impossible to explain. To generalize about the appearance of collodion and gelatin glass plate negatives is not possible, as both have similar characteristics that may make diﬀerentiation confusing. It should be noted that unless deterioration is evident, preservation of both negative types requires similar approaches.” Despite using a similar preservation approach for both processes, it is important not to confuse or interchange the two photographic processes when conducting an actual conservation treatment. e conservation of the wet and dry plate processes “diﬀer signiﬁcantly depending on the nature and extent of deterioration” (Keefe and Inch, , p. ). A professionally trained conservator who specializes in th century photographic preservation is the best resource for determining the proper course of treatment. Glass plate negatives present unique preservation challenges due to their fragile physical format and highly varied chemical structures. As with any archival collection, knowledge of the “constituent materials of permanently valuable archival records is important to determining proper long-term preservation measures” (McCabe, , p. ). is concept translates to a thorough understanding of the manner in which archival materials were constructed, their component materials and the manner and rate in which these materials deteriorate. is understanding of the manufacturing process is complicated by the many variations in chemical formulas used by th century photographers. Every photographer developed his or her own preferred methods and formulas for the collodion, developers, ﬁxers, post-processing treatments and varnishes. In addition, many diﬀerent types of glass were available to photographers. ese variations in methods and materials combined with errors made by the photographer are preservation concerns that are almost impossible to mitigate. Glass plate negatives are also vulnerable to various external agents of deterioration. ese external agents include heat, water damage, extremely high and/or low relative humidity levels, atmospheric pollutants and mold aacks (Keefe and Inch, , pp. –). ese agents of degradation contribute to the most common
preservation problems regarding glass plate negatives: the deterioration of the glass plate and the chemical stability of the negative’s other components (including the silver image, the collodion and varnish layers). Prior to the late s, it was not commonly accepted that the glass itself could be a factor in the deterioration of photographic plates. e deterioration of the glass is oen moisture-related. By the early s, the National Archives recognized that many of their plates were undergoing a chemical change on the non-image side of the glass plate. is meant that the glass itself was changing in its chemical structure. e non-image sides of the plates can exhibit a crystalline deposit that is oen characterized as being either sticky or slippery (McCabe, , p. ). e image side of the glass also exhibits problems with soening as the glass degrades and can exhibit problems with the liing of the binder and varnish layers. Additionally, the glass plate itself can become increasingly brile and more prone to cracking and breaking. ese changes in the chemical structure of the glass are closely associated with variations in environmental conditions, especially changes in relative humidity levels. e hygroscopic nature of the salts found in the glass can also contribute to the deterioration of the silver image. e stability of the glass negative’s other chemical components can also be problematic. e silver image is subject to oxidative deterioration, which oen presents itself in the fading and discoloration of the image. e oxidation of the silver image is oen initially caused by poor chemical processing and the use of unstable materials, but the condition is exacerbated by elevated relative humidity levels, atmospheric pollutants and low quality storage enclosures. Collodion, the binder in which the image’s silver particles are suspended, can also present preservation concerns. Collodion is composed of cellulose nitrate - a chemical compound that is known to be unstable. Some archivists and conservators have theorized that the collodion negative could be as unstable as cellulose nitrate ﬁlm support (McCabe, , p. ). e National Archives concluded that while the cellulose nitrate in the collodion is of concern, it is less a factor in deterioration of negatives than the degradation of the glass support. e stabilization of glass plate negatives is a multi-step process. ese steps begin with condition assessment reports and a survey of the plates storage needs. Stabilization continues with the cleaning of the negative, including the removal of any pressure sensitive tape and/or adhesives. is is generally followed by the reformaing and re-housing of the negatives and concludes with the placement of the original negatives into cold storage (McCabe, , p. ).
Creating Digital Collections with Glass Plate Negatives As with many types of archival materials, there is oen a conﬂict between providing public access to glass plate negatives and ensuring their preservation. Some archivists at the National Library of Australia have even argued that this is the key issue surrounding glass plate negatives. “e most important aspect of glass
negative preservation is to ensure the image is retained and made accessible” (National Library of Australia, , p. ). In order to aain both goals of access and preservation, glass plate negatives should be reformaed. Reformaing creates copy negatives for public access and minimizes the need to view originals which can then be placed into cold storage. Traditionally glass plate negatives were duplicated by creating contact-prints onto Kodak S- paper combined with the use of Direct Duplicating Film. Direct Duplicating Film resulted in negatives of the same size and shape as the original (Keefe and Inch, , pp. -). Today new standards in digital technology have been developed that make the reformaing process easier, faster and more readily available to smaller institutions. e digital reformaing of a collection’s glass plate negatives is usually accomplished by scanning the original negatives using both a ﬂat-bed scanner for smaller plates and an overhead capture digital camera (such as a MARC II camera) for larger sized negatives. One important step in any digitization project is the establishment of image standards and best practices for each type of digital image generated during the reformaing project. e standards for spatial resolution, tonal (pixel depth) resolution and ﬁle formats should be established separately for each type of digital image, including online uncompressed archival images, compressed service images, thumbnail images and the master archived image (American Memory: e Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers, , pp. –). Aer establishing the parameters for each type of image, these standards can then be applied to the entire collection. Typically a reformaing project also involves establishing the degree to which the scans will be manipulated or “cleaned up.” Many institutions choose to scan the plates “as is” meaning that no manipulation of the image is to be done aer the initial scan. Some institutions choose to digitally clean the images and/or aempt to replace the damaged portions of the image. Regardless of what decision an institution makes, their policy regarding image manipulation should be stated in writing and be readily available to both staﬀ and public users in order to prevent confusion.
Conclusion e preservation of glass plate negatives is not without its challenges. A combined response can help ensure their survival. is response includes the creation of appropriate storage conditions, understanding the proper care and handling techniques, awareness of preservation concerns and the importance of reformaing. When these steps are paired with common sense and staﬀ training, the life of a glass plate negative can be prolonged, and generations of users can access and beneﬁt from the negative’s informational and evidential values.
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