Cleaning, Scanning, Digitizing and Rehousing: A Journey with Glass Plate Negatives

February 13th, 2016 by Rebecca

Prepared by Kristin Cook, Preservation Intern, Fall 2015 Semester

Introduction

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Museum of the White Mountains. August 2015, Kristin Cook.

Nestled among the hills of Plymouth, New Hampshire, across the street from Plymouth State University’s Lamson Library, is a small brick building that was formerly a Methodist church. After sitting vacant for a number of years, it was purchased by the University and converted to house the Museum of the White Mountains, a small museum associated with the school and holding thousands of books, photographs, objects, and other material related to the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire.

Included in the founding collection donated by Dan Noel were five wooden crates of glass plate negatives. This type of negative is almost never captured anymore: long before digital cameras came to dominate photography, paper negatives had become customary. Yet in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, when photography was still fairly new, the process for capturing images included coating a rectangular piece of glass in a chemical solution and then sensitizing it before placing it into a large camera.

The subjects that a photographer meant to capture had to stand still for a long period of time while the coated glass plate was exposed. This “long period” amounted to seconds, which may seem short, but try keeping precisely still for up to ten seconds – it’s longer than you think! If anything in the photograph moved, such as people or animals, or were blown by the wind, such as trees or flowers, they may very well have come out blurry. When the plate dried, it could then be developed into numerous paper copies. In fact, the Museum of the White Mountains holds some paper photographs in its collection that contain the same images as those captured on the glass plate negatives.

The name T.E.M. White and the words No. Conway, N.H. appear on the side of one of the plate crates. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

The name T.E.M. White and the words No. Conway, N.H. appear on the side of one of the plate crates. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

The five wooden crates of glass plates donated by Noel were photographers’ plate crates, specifically made with slots to hold the negatives upright because they could be easily damaged if they were laid on top of one another in stacks. The name T.E.M. White is printed on the side of these crates, and the Museum has attributed the plates to White, as he was a prominent White Mountains photographer of the late 19th century. In fact, the Library of Congress holds some of White’s stereographs from when he worked in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Portrait of T.E.M. White. Museum of the White Mountains.

Portrait of T.E.M. White. Museum of the White Mountains.

Born in Newburyport, MA, in 1834, Thomas Edward Mullikin was adopted at eight years of age by his mother’s brother, whose surname he took, and moved to his uncle’s home in New Bedford. White suffered from many ailments as a child, which led to the amputation of one of his legs around the age of 21. He was fascinated by scientific invention and the natural world, and was an avid singer and violinist as well as a swimmer. In 1876 White married the artist Gabriela F. Eddy, and two years later they moved to North Conway. In 1880 they built their home at Tanglewild, where they worked together in their photographic studio. For their photographs of White Mountain scenery they won praise, and White, known as “Ned,” became locally famous for his jolly attitude and his worship of nature. He passed away in December of 1909.

The five plate crates, stored on metal shelving and the floor of the intake room of the Museum. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

The five plate crates, stored on metal shelving and the floor of the intake room of the Museum. September 2015, Kristin Cook.

White’s glass plate negatives in the Museum of the White Mountain’s collection have been dated from between 1880, the year of the completion of his home and studio, and 1909, the year of his death. It is possible that he was the last person who touched them, putting them into the crates for storage, potentially keeping them with the idea in mind to make photographic prints from them in future.

In the interim 100 years, the crates were stored in less than ideal (that is, non-archival) conditions, and when I first encountered them in the intake room at the Museum they were full of dust and cobwebs.

Some of the glass plates were clearly broken. The good news is that many of those broken plates could be pieced back together and scanned so that a coherent image became visible. Also, the dust, shells of dead insects, and mice droppings could be cleaned away. However, it would become clear during the cleaning process that with some of the plates, small dirt particles had worked their way into the porous surface of the glass and could not now be removed, producing a “cloudy” effect that somewhat obscures the images that White captured.

 

Part II: Preservation Process