05 January 2020

The Woman in the Glass

Among family papers and photographs I inherited from my maternal grandmother, I found what I thought was a photographic glass plate negative of a young woman.  Doing more research, I found a fascinating CBS News article explaining how glass plate negatives had been used starting in the 1850s to “etch” photographic images onto thin glass plates that could then be used to transfer the images to paper.

In the 1870s, a “dry” version of glass negative was created which was easier to use and required less exposure time.  These glass negatives were used for almost all types of photography until the late 1910s, when plastic negatives, known as “films,” were introduced into mainstream photography after 20 years of being inefficient and expensive.  Although the glass plate negatives provided better quality (more clarity of detail) than films, they were more difficult to use, so quickly fell out of use for mainstream photography. (Glass plate negatives remained in use for some professional photography until the 1970s and there is still a small group of photographers who use glass plates today for specialized photography.)

In performing this research, I realized that the glass plate I held in my hand was not, actually, a glass negative.  Glass plate negatives are extremely thin and very fragile.  Mine was thicker and more durable.  I wasn’t sure what to call what I had, but I did know that I didn’t get a very good reading of the figure depicted, so I set about making the image easier to interpret.