Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Throuh a glass (negative) darkly.

A while back -- to be truthful about it, 40 plus years ago -- we stopped at a yard sale in the rural countryside near Lockport in western New York. We often stopped at a yard sale when we were driving around the quite new to us area. Everything was so old there compared to the west coast from whence we had moved.

Since we had a good sized Dodge family van at the time we even sometimes bought things when we stopped at a yard sale. I bought a small oak bookcase along with (at the insistence of the seller) the books that were in it. Most of the books were of the likes of Readers Digest condensed books. Among them, however, was an album of several hundred photogravures of England, Scotland, and Wales collected in 1903 by one Maude Grant Kent. It seems that when a well-to-do young person took the tour to Europe that collecting photogravures as souvenirs was the thing to do. With only a little detective work (some years later when Professor Google was available to help) we found that Ms. Kent lived in Chautauqua, New York.  But I digress. 

I also kept my eye open for cameras and old photographic equipment. Over the several years we lived near Buffalo I accumulated twenty or so box cameras and folding cameras of varying ages and pedigrees and a kerosene darkroom safe lamp. Most of the cameras were (of course, being so close to Rochester) Kodaks but I did catch a couple of Ansco 35 mm cameras, an Ansco half-frame 35mm camera, and on the day in question an Imperial Camera Company 4"x5" glass plate box camera.
Last fall I decided that it was time to unload a couple of good-sized boxes of photographic mathoms (mathom: an object that you don't need but is way too good to throw out). Professor Google was very helpful in dating and even estimating prices for all the cameras except for the Imperial. I could find the company -- short lived from 1898 to 1904 before being bought out by Conley View Cameras. However, I have yet to find even a mention of their 4”x5” glass plate box camera (but I know they existed -- I own one).

The Imperial has a handy compartment behind the slot into which the two-sided glass plate holder fits.  It allowed the user to transport a box of glass plates or a couple of extra pre-loaded plate holders. There was a box of unexposed glass plates in the camera but they had long since been light struck and were no longer useable. However, at the same garage sale I had also bought two boxes of glass plate negatives, doubtless taken with this camera. I looked at them briefly -- they were family pictures from a farm home, perhaps the house in the yard of which the sale was held. It's a pity I didn't take a photograph of the house. The negatives are a bit soft and of varying quality (as you would expect from a box camera) but all but a few of the 16 or so are quite printable -- maybe. I had passing thoughts of trying to print them but the thoughts passed before I did so and soon forgot about them. But last fall there they still were, languishing in my boxes of photographic mathoms, and I decided to try to print them.

Well, being in the digital age now I decided to scan these glass plate negatives and take a really good look at them. My friend, Craig, volunteered his scanner that will scan a 4"x5" negative (mine won't) and we spent a Saturday morning doing so. We also scanned three other glass plate negatives -- obviously taken with a much more sophisticated camera -- that I bought at another yard sale later. These three I had contact printed at the time on Velox paper. [For the uninitiated, Negatives as old as these are notoriously difficult to print on modern materials even if you have an enlarger big enough to carry a 4"x5" negative (I don't).  However, as late as 40 years ago you could buy Velox, a Kodak paper specifically coated for "contact printing" -- that is; sandwiching the negative directly on the surface of the paper under a piece of glass and exposing the sandwich to light. Of course, that means that the print of a 4”x5” negative is also 4”x5” -- big enough to inspect but not much else. Contact printing papers are, of course, long gone now.]

When I am in an antique (or junk) store I will often see a box of photographs labeled "instant ancestors" -- family photographs with no family, mostly without even a name. I find them sad.  Somehow I find these negatives even sadder. They were important enough that they somebody had kept them together and in the family home since the early 1900s – or maybe just never were noticed in the attic.  In either case they should belong to the great-great-grandchildren of the people shown in them -- not to some photography enthusiast that lives 2725 (I looked it up) miles away. Moreover I have no idea who these people were and not a prayer of finding out anything about them.

I decided that I am going to adopt these photographs -- print them and write the story of who these people are.  Just to make it more interesting I'm going to combine the two sets of negatives into one story.

But wait! "Print them" is another issue. In a sane world (not mine, obviously) I would make digital prints of the scans that Craig and I did -- carefully toning them to take on the look of 1900-vintage prints. Professor Google and my library of books of photographic history told me that they were likely to have been printed on albumen paper. Yes, "albumen" as in the protein in egg white and blood serum. The photograph above is a scan of an albumen print that (a little foreshadowing of an upcoming blog post) I made from one of them.


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