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 !