Wednesday, January 24, 2007

My Grandmother’s Glass-plate Photographs, 1899


Photography was a cumbersome business in my Grandmother’s day, but this did not dampen her enthusiasm. She loved the art of taking pictures and she was very adept at it.

Around 1885 the gelatin dry plate glass negative was introduced. It replaced the wet plates that were not only messy but actually dangerous to the user. And, best of all, the dry plates were made in a factory, came in a box, and could be stored for months either before or after exposure.

These plates went into a light-proof holder that fit into the back of the camera which was placed on a tripod. The subject would be checked through a view finder and then a black cloth tent would be draped over the camera and the photographer to keep out light. The cover of the plate holder would be removed, as well as the lens cap. This would allow light to enter for exposure.

The key to good photography then was knowing the exact time needed to get the correct exposure. This could be anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes and live subjects would have to retain their pose for that length of time. This could explain why so many family portraits of that day seem stiff and unfriendly.

My Grandmother also developed and printed all of her pictures. She continued to do this even when George Eastman brought out his first Kodak camera in 1889 using flexible roll film. She was a purist and believed in having control over her technique from start to finish.

My family is lucky to have retained many of my grandmother’s glass negatives and we’ve been able to make prints from them. The little girl in the picture is her daughter, my mother. She and her sister were favorite subjects, as were landscapes, structures and, of course, the formal family portraits.

I wonder what my grandmother’s reaction would be to the age of technology that we live in today? She was still marveling over the invention of the (now obsolete) Polaroid camera when she passed away in the 1960’s !

11 Comments:

Anonymous colleen said...

What an amazing woman your grandmother was.

I was looking at some old photos with my dad and he explaind how still you had to be. In one his sister moved slightly and blurred the shot. He remembered she got yelled at!

6:35 AM  
Anonymous claude said...

Those are treasures! And your grandmother was quite an incredible woman.

7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the old pictures and remember seeing my dad use an old box camera. He loved photography. I see similarities between you and your grandmother!

1:29 PM  
Blogger Anvilcloud said...

Your grandmother was a treasure, and she passed treasures on.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous naomi dagen bloom said...

how wonderful that your family saved the glass plates. the wonderful plates by chansonetta stanley emmons of maine http://www.stanleymuseum.org/maine.html were found in a barn!

these are so very evocative. and what was that about not being a real artist in previous post? your grandmother would see the artist in your decorative furniture painting--and your blog. glad to know another 73 year old blogging artist.
yours, naomi

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

I really enjoyed this post and the information.
That's what I was thinking when I read it...I wonder what she'd think of the cameras today!
I'm beginning to see where you got your genes. Sounds like your grandmother was quite the pioneer for her day.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so impressed. Your grandmother sounds like an amazing woman, just like you!

5:04 PM  
Blogger Cazzie!!! said...

Your posts never fail to amaze me, I love to learn so much and indeed, this is what you provide.
The picture is so pleasant, I only have one picture o my great grandmother's wedding from WW1 where she has a stern look on her face in her lovely Victorian Style wedding dress and my Great Grandpa is in his Infantry gear standing next to her, hand on chair.
I cherish that picture and can visualise the old camera with witch they took that picture.
The poloroid cameras are still like magic to me :)

10:04 PM  
Anonymous Alan G said...

Enjoyed the post Ginnie...

I was immediately struck by the fact that the lady on the left in the photo in fact had a bit of a pleasant look if not a slight smile on her face as compared to the stiff poses of the others. As you pointed out, it is very, very rare to see someone in photos from those times to not to be frozen and stern looking in their pose.

5:21 AM  
Anonymous John said...

I love that picture. Everyone looks so relaxed. :-)

7:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How wonderful it is that you have those, Ginnie. My grandmother died in 1971, and I often wonder what she would say about today's technology, especially digital cameras and cell phones. In her day, that was the stuff of sci-fi.

Your mom sure was cute!

9:14 PM  

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