The Darkroom
Printing From Glass Plates; It’s Definitely Worth The Effort Page 2

For this collection I chose Ilford's Multigrade Warmtone. Not just because it is my current favorite, but also because I thought the warmer image tone was more appropriate for the pictures of young children. I used a light selenium toner on the finished prints to warm them still further. I thought it important to use the same paper for all of the prints. When you print a collection of photographs which will either be hung together or displayed together in an album, it is important to have matching paper base and image tone.

Rather than enlarge too far, I decided to print using a 5x7" image area in the middle of 8x10" paper. There were more than aesthetic reasons for this. Not all of the plates I was working with were bitingly sharp. I suspect this was less to do with the skill of the photographer, and more to do with photographing fast moving, lively children on slow film with slow lenses. Also, most emulsions were simply not designed for enlarging: they were grainy and unsharp, and the Pyro-Soda developer that most people used did nothing to improve this. When Kodak D76 appeared in the late '20s it was a revelation in the fine-grained stakes. The more you enlarge a negative, the more all of these faults will show.

Anonymous girl. I adjusted this in Photoshop so that her face looked about right, letting everything else fall into place.

Rather than mask off the edges, which would have been standard practice when these pictures were taken, I used the artifacts of the emulsion at the edge of the glass as a frame around the images. On many of the plates, the emulsion is lifting very slightly at the edge. This can be caused by poor processing, poor storage (especially variations in humidity and temperature), or just age. In extreme cases the plate may delaminate completely. The ones which had delaminated I just didn't print.

There are instructions in old photographic books which tell you how to restore delaminated and even cracked plates by floating off the emulsion and putting it onto a new plate. If these had been my plates, and not someone else's, I would have been tempted to try this, but it doesn't look easy. Before attempting any restoration--even cleaning--it is worth making the best print you can from the unrestored plate, in case things go wrong later. If the plates are of particular historical value, do not attempt any restoration yourself, at least without taking plenty of advice from experts.

I was astounded by the detail in the pictures I printed. For example, there is a picture of a baby in a romper suit. A good tricoteuse (one who knits, especially next to guillotines), looking at the original print, could probably work out what kind of stitches were used to knit the clothes.

Of course it takes a long time to do silver-halide prints, and this was a collection of 44 glass plates. So I decided to see how they would scan. In this particular case, the answer was "very well." Using the transparency hood on my Epson 1680, I scanned all but the most badly delaminated plates, made some small inkjet prints, trimmed them with the deckle-edge printer, and gave them to Genevieve along with six silver-halide prints in exchange for permission to use some of the pictures in this column.

When scanning plates it is a good idea to lay a sheet of acetate over the bed of the scanner to remove the risk of scratching. Also, place the negatives emulsion down: the thickness of the glass can lead to a loss of sharpness. If your scanner has adjustable focus, make sure that it is set at 0 (the face of the glass): I have to override the Epson which always wants to scan negatives and slides at +2.5mm to allow for the film carriers. You can try scanning the negatives without a transparency hood, if you put a sheet of good white paper behind them, but the results are rarely anything like as satisfactory.

My success in scanning these led me to try a couple of other ancient glass negatives that I have acquired over the years, a half-plate (43/4x61/2") portrait of a girl and a photograph of a church organ. Both are pre-World War II; I would guess that the girl dates from the early '20s while the organ might be as late as the '30s.

The former was reasonably successful, though the negative was filthy: I would guess that half the CRUD (Corrosion Residue and Undetermined Detritus) dated back to the original processing while the rest was acquired over the decades. If you look at the scan of the church organ, though, you will see what happens with a "bulletproof" negative: the scanner simply cannot chew through it. So I made a contact print instead, and you can see the results.

With any plates, storage is a real concern. Genevieve's plates are currently stored in two batches. Each batch is wrapped in white paper, probably writing paper, and then kept in a cardboard box. Dark storage is important, and these are certainly dark stored, but I doubt that the paper is acid- and lignin-free or that the cardboard is lignin-free.

Light Impressions sell wrappers for glass plates in 4x5", 5x7", and 8x10", but of course there are plenty of other sizes that may need wrapping: the 645 plates I used, 6.5x9cm, 9x12cm, 13x18cm, and 18x24cm are only the more common metric sizes, while imperial sizes include quarter plate (31/4x41/4"), half plate (43/4x61/2"), whole plate (61/2x81/2"), and 10x12" and 12x15". Then there are standard lantern slides at 31/4" square... For these, any archival, acid-free wrapping material is a good idea.

Keep the slides at as constant a humidity and temperature as possible: changes will cause the glass and the gelatin to expand and contract at different rates, leading to much faster delamination. A moderate temperature--50-70Þ Fahrenheit, 10-20Þ Celsius--and a low but not very low humidity (30-40 percent) are generally reckoned perfectly adequate.

Remember, too, that they are extremely fragile because of the thin glass on which they are coated: they will snap if flexed and shatter if dropped. But even so, it is worth taking them out and printing them. Otherwise, why keep them?

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