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

After looking at the prints I had just given her, my neighbor Genevieve said, "I have never seen prints of these photographs before."

It all started when she showed me a box of 6x4.5cm glass plates from 1923-'35. It was a collection of family photos of her father, aunt, and uncle when they were small children. In France glass plates were used for far longer than in the US. I offered to make a few prints for her, partly as a favor, but mostly because I had never worked with glass plates and I wanted to.

Baby in romper suit: Genevieve's father. Enlarged onto Ilford's Multigrade Warmtone.

At first I thought about making only contact prints. Because of the weight of the glass plate, all you have to do is lay plates of similar densities on a sheet of photographic paper and you can print several plates at once. Or if I want to be thoroughly authentic, I have a couple of 6x4.5cm contact printing frames. But 6x4.5cm prints are pretty tiny. How much more fun to have enlargements!

The negative carrier from my Meopta Magnifax is perfect for this application. It is a 6x9cm (about 21/2x31/4"), sandwich-type double glass carrier. The glasses are inserts, so you can work with a single glass (top or bottom) or use the carrier glassless. The sandwich will take materials up to about 5mm thick (just under 1/4") with both top and bottom glass. These 6x4.5cm plates are only about 1mm thick, so they can be placed in the carrier just like any other medium format negative. There are masking blades in the carrier, so it can be masked down from 6x9cm to 6x4.5cm.

It is always important when you work with a glass carrier to make sure that you have it scrupulously clean. I use Kinetronics antistatic brushes and cloths to do this. The brushes are soft and can also be used on glass plates (or other negs). A few minutes spent cleaning the surfaces before you print can save you hours of retouching later.

To keep the number of surfaces to a minimum, I chose to work with the plates supported on the lower glass of the negative carrier. Normally when you use a single glass, you should use an Anti-Newton glass above the negative, but I needed the lower glass to support the plate.

The hopelessly thin, contrasty image is (believe it or not) the best I could get from the scanner. The other is a contact print on Ilford's Multigrade Warmtone. The base exposure is at Grade 0.5 and the left-hand side is burned in one stop at Grade 0. The only real hope for a negative such as this is POP.

With any collection of old negatives, glass or acetate, you are likely to be working with extremes of density and contrast. Few photographers used exposure meters; most of the meters available were not very accurate; and the general inclination was to err, whenever possible, on the side of generous exposure. But "whenever possible" was not necessarily very often: H&D 350 (roughly equivalent to ISO 15) was regarded as fast, and plenty of people used plates of H&D 200 (ISO 8) or below. In addition, f/3.5 was a fast lens: f/6.3 was quite common. Even in brilliant sun, 1/50 sec wide-open at f/6.3 might be the optimum exposure. On overcast days, handheld exposure could be a distinct embarrassment.

As for contrast, many people still developed their plates by inspection, under a red light, and some were better at this than others: many produced negatives that were pale and wan, while others went for contrast that looks halfway to lith to a modern eye. Combine generous exposure with generous development and you get a negative which was, in the phrase of the day, "bulletproof." It's also true that ortho plates (non-red-sensitive) and "ordinary" plates (blue-sensitive only) can play strange tricks with tonality, not just flesh tones but also skies, red woods such as mahogany, brick... They are not inherently contrastier, but they were often developed that way.

This didn't necessarily matter. Most negatives were still printed out on Printing-Out Paper (POP) which needs a high-contrast negative and which has no problem with either very high densities or very high contrast. For high densities you just exposed the print for longer--one celebrated negative in the researches of Hurter and Driffield reputedly took three days--and POP has an inherent self-masking ability: as density builds in the more exposed areas of the print, it masks the silver halide behind it, while density continues to build at the same speed as before in the less exposed areas. This magically compresses the tonal range to exactly what the paper can handle and explains why so many ancient prints are so wonderful.

A well processed and archivally washed plate will last a very long time, quite possibly for centuries if it is protected from fire, flood, and gelatin-eating insects or fungus, but badly fixed or badly washed plates may well fade.

You therefore have three options. One is to go for POP (which is still available) and do it the way our ancestors did. This is best for the aforementioned "bulletproof" negatives but is a subject for a future column, in which I shall talk about producing negatives for POP as well as the techniques of POP printing and toning.

The second option is printing on variable-contrast paper--and you may well need the extremes that are available to you, from Grade 00 to Grade 5. This is ideal for the vast majority of negatives, even the ones that are thin and weak. And the third option, to which I shall return in a moment, is scanning. Scanning is really only suitable for less dense, less contrasty negatives.

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