Our latest blog is from college student Erica Kriel who has been volunteering at the museum. Erica looks at the history of glass plate photographic negatives and the examples we hold in the museum, especially some relating to the films of Cecil Hepworth.
In the 19th century, English photographer Frederick Scott Archer was displeased with the lack of detail given by calotype photography when he photographed his sculptures - from this, glass plate negatives were born.
Glass plate negatives consist of a glass plate coated in a light sensitive emulsion and binding agent. When exposed to light, an image will be created. The first photography processes introduced by Joseph Nicéphore Niepce, Louis Jacque Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox were built upon by Archer and, in 1851, he created the first wet plate glass plate negative. This was often referred to as the ‘photographic colloidal process,’ referencing the collodion solution that the plate was prepared with which had been used a few years earlier as a wound dressing. In some of these glass plate negatives the photographer’s thumb can be seen in the corner from where they held it when applying the solution. This invention was ground-breaking and increased the accessibility of photography to the public, partially due to how cheap it was - 12 paper prints made using this process would have been equivalent to one daguerreotype, a photography process active in the 1840s and 1850s. War photographer Roger Fenton even used the collodion process in his images of the Crimean War. Although this new process (published in The Chemist in March 1851) benefited the general public and gave significantly more detail to photographs, the design had many flaws: the plate had to be exposed while the emulsion was still wet and then needed to be processed immediately after exposure to the camera. Overall, it was a very hard technique to master and required very bulky equipment. Consequently, wet plates were only in use from the early 1850s to the late 1880s when a more convenient design of glass plate negatives gained popularity, however during this time period they were the only practical photography process in use. However, Frederick Scott Archer failed to patent the process and so died poor in 1857 – he continues to have little recognition in respect to the vast contribution he made to photography.
This was the first photography process in England to be free of patent restrictions, fortunately allowing the public to practice the process free of charge and therefore revolutionising the process of photography. To this day, photographers still use the wet collodion process around the world, and this includes Nicky Thompson of Dartmoor, Devon. Thompson, previously a teacher at Exeter College for 22 years, uses Dartmoor as inspiration for her work in wet collodion photography. Not only does she have a diverse portfolio, but she also provides a wet collodion workshop in her rural studio at Dartmoor which allows you to be fully immersed in the wet plate process. You can find out more here
Towards the start of the 1870s, British physician and photographer Richard Leach Maddox was noticing a decline in his health. He came to realise that it was the result of the ether vapour produced by the collodion solution when creating wet plate glass plate negatives and immediately began looking for a substitute. In 1871, Maddox developed the first practical dry plate negative process which was published in the British Journal of Photography in September of that year, and only eight years later, this invention became available to the public. This impacted ordinary people immensely as materials and equipment became so much more accessible and, with the now increased practice in photography, pictures taken were much more varied. In contrast with Archer, Maddox established a much less strenuous process in creating these glass plate negatives. This involved fixing a light sensitive gelatine emulsion to a glass plate, allowing it to dry, and then exposing it to the camera. Because they were dry, Maddox’s negatives were renowned for being easily transported and having a longer shelf life. Ultimately, dry plate glass plate negatives became the first durable and economically successful photographic medium and were in use from the 1880s to the 1920s, when they were soon replaced by gelatine silver paper negatives and celluloid roll film.
The image at the top of this blog shows an image of the celebrations in London for the coronation of King George V. This is a glass-plate stereocopic image (EXEBD 65958), part of a set we acquired that had been taken by an amateur photographer. Here is the original negative (EXEBD 65963).
The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum is in possession of many glass plate negatives, most notably from British film director Cecil Hepworth, which were acquired as part of the Townly Cooke collection in 2018. Townly was an artist and photographer who put together a large collection of publicity stills for silent films, particularly the films made by Hepworth in Britain in the 1910s and 1920s. Stanley Faithfull, head of the stills department at Cecil’s company Hepworth Picture Play, used what could be considered the best camera on the market at the time to capture these images. Tom White then went on to produce the negatives. Hepworth directed films from 1900 to the early 1920s and was also one of the founders of the British film industry. In 1923 his company could no longer meet its financial obligations due to the box office failure of Comin’ Thro the Rye (1923), and so went into receivership of Ideal. This film was one of his most prized and he commented in his autobiography that he put everything he had in him into the film. Inevitably, original film negatives from his films were sold to, in Hepworth’s words, ‘a man who did not know how to use them’*. Eventually they were resold to be melted down and obtain the silver so it could be sold – many of his feature films have been considered lost for many decades and in some cases glass plate negatives may be the only surviving original visual record of the productions.
This film [Comin’ Thro the Rye] is a romance based on the novel by Helen Mathers which tells the story of a girl who breaks up her friend’s engagement out of jealousy with a fake wedding announcement. It has received many positive reviews in terms of its storyline and photography – in Hepworth’s words, Mathers ‘was particularly pleased with the film version of her book’*. But the over-budgeting of the film process inevitably led to its failure. Cecil Palmer, a film critic, even commented that ‘he [Cecil Hepworth] has given us a play that is probably destined to become historic’ in an article from 1924**. Townly’s collection features a number of glass plate negatives, and positive reproductions from them, taken from publicity material for Comin’ Thro the Rye.
Below you will find the negative and positive main publicity image of the film's star, Alma Taylor, followed by an image of the cast at a railway station.
Ultimately, glass plate negatives have made a significant impact on photography and without them, photographic mediums would not be what they are now. Thanks to The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, we are able to learn more about their history and understand the momentous achievements of past inventors which allow us to experience films of today.
The digital copies here were created by the Digital Humanities team at the University of Exeter from the museum's holdings.
*Came the Dawn: Memories of a Film Pioneer by Cecil M. Hepworth
**New Scala Magazine programme, February 11th, 1924
The History of the British Film 1918-1929 by Rachael Low
The History of Photography Volume II: The Rise of Photography 1850-1880: The Age of Collodion by Helmut Gernsheim
History of Photography: Techniques and Equipment by Camfield and Deirdre Wills
The Science Museum Photography Collection by D.B. Thomas
The Story of Photography by Michael Langford
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