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GLASS PLATE NEGATIVE COLLECTING
by James Marusek
A few years back, I was wandering aimlessly inside an antique mall. I entered a dark alcove and came across a small cardboard box resting on a shelf. Inside I found several plates of glass. I held up a few to the light and could make out faint images on the emulsion. I immediately recognized these as glass plate negatives. The clarity looked poor but glass plate negatives can be deceiving. There were very few scratches. This is always a good sign. I bought the lot and took it home.
Collecting glass plate negatives is akin to an archeologist unearthing a buried object. A bit of detective blood is required to fully appreciate them. They are not much to look at. But sometimes a secret treasure is buried inside.
Several days passed. I removed the cardboard boxes from the closet and examined them. The collection consisted of 27 glass plate negative contained in 3 boxes. Eleven of the glass plate negatives were 4 1/4" x 4 1/4" (ranging in thickness from 0.047" to 0.058") and sixteen of the glass plate negatives were 4" x 5" (ranging in thickness from 0.057" to 0.086"). One of the boxes was labeled "The Stanley Trade Mark Dry Plate. Newton, Mass, U.S.A." It depicted the symbol of a knight in armor with a sword drawn and the words " On! Stanley On!" This was the first clue to the puzzle.
I sent a letter to Ron Polito, one of the few photographic experts I know. He authored the book "A Directory of Massachusetts Photographers 1839-1900". We had corresponded over the past few years and developed a friendship even though we never met. A few days later he wrote back. Stanley dry plates were produced by the Stanley Brothers; the same individuals who invented the Stanley Steamer. They sold their company to Kodak at the time Kodak was acquiring as many plate manufacturers as possible. Stanley Brothers were located in Newton, Massachusetts from 1890 to 1904. Now I had a rough timeframe for the photographs.This box also contained several other clues. These were in the form of words written in pencil: Mexico, Alaska, Pacific, Yellowstone Park and the name Ray DePrez.
The next step was to obtain prints from the glass plate negatives. Normally, this would be a simple task of making contact prints in a darkroom. The only problem was that I donít have a darkroom. So I had to devise a devious method for making these prints. I assembled the following equipments for the task: a Bogen Mini Repro Model 1190 Copy Stand, a Visual Plus 12x8.5 Light Table Model VP-4050V (normally used as a portable slide viewer), a Nikon Model FA 35 mm Camera, a Vivitar Lens 105mm F/2.5 Series 1 - Macro Lens, and AGFA SCALA 200 Professional Black and White Slide Film. A macro lens provides minimal distortion in close-up copy work. I mounted the camera on the copy stand and placed the light table on the stand. I placed the glass plate negative on the light table with the emulsion side up. When I sent this special slide film to the film processor in New York City, I request that the film be sent back in a roll rather than mounted on slide mats. When I received the processed roll of film back, I dropped it off at a local film processor to make these final black and white prints.
With the prints in hand I was able to proceed on to the next clue. Yellowstone was written in pencil on one of the boxes. I mailed several of the prints off to Yellowstone National Park with a letter requesting information. They were able to unlock the puzzle on several of the images.
One of the photographs was the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park after an eruption. Four men and seven women are walking and exploring the area. The water on the ground, and the fact that they stand so close to the feature, suggests that the geyser had recently erupted. The tourists' clothing is typical of the 1890-1900 period.
One photograph was of the Highland Terrace in Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.
One of the photographs was the National Hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Approximately 30 men and women are waiting for stagecoach. Luggage is piled next to loading area. They are probably waiting to be transported to their next stop in Yellowstone rather than waiting to be taken to the train station (since there were no trunks among the luggage). The photograph showed very good detail of the porch of a building that no longer exists. A number of people are wearing dusters, which were widely used during this period to keep the dirt from park roads off clothing. One of the advantages in the print method described above is that it allowed me to make close-up prints of fine details in the glass plate negative.
One of the photographs was of an Indian crossing a city street. I examined this print closely. The side street curved downward to the sea. Two women were standing along the side street. The main sign in the corner shop reads "David F. Douglas Broker. Established 1847 - Mines & Mining Stock - Real Estate & Insurance - Money to Loan". The sign in the window above reads "Violin Academy". The next shop down reads "Corticelli Silk Co. Ltd." The next shop down reads "Victoria Vancouver Transportation Sa". Since the word Vancouver appeared in the image, I contacted Adrian Clark, the President of the Vancouver Historical Society and asked his help. He was able to identify the location as the northwest corner of Cordova and Cambie Streets in Vancouver, Canada. He provided a color photograph of the exact location as it exists today. An Indian Reservation was located near Vancouver during the 1890ís.
Two of the photographs were of an unknown cathedral in Mexico. Notice the adobe brick construction on buildings in foreground.
One photograph was a small oar boat in the foreground and a warship in the background. I examined the photograph details. The warship caught my attention. The naval warship was dressed for parade with the string of flags. The warship was steam driven. There were four gun turrets mounted along the side of the ship. The naval ship had an escort of smaller ships. There was a tugboat on the front, and one or two craft at the rear. There was a city behind the warship. A church with steeple and a water tower is also visible. I sent an email to a longtime friend, Nathan Okun, an expert on Naval Armor. He indicated the ship was a late 1890ís Protected Cruiser, either the U.S.S. Cincinnati or the U.S.S. Raleigh. Both ships were commissioned in 1894. The U.S.S. Cincinnati underwent a massive rebuild in 1901 that removed one of its two masts. The flags may indicate a celebration. It is very possible this may be at the end of the Spanish American War (the year 1898). This clue is interesting because it implies a date for this collection as 1898.
Glass plate negatives in general are larger formats than the film negatives used today. This collection is over a century old and yet pristine prints with very fine detail can be obtained from these negatives. Unlike photographs that have faded in time, many glass plate negatives have been stored in boxes, in darkened rooms and have suffered very little damage from handling.
copyright 2003 James Marusek