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Early photography

Glass Plate Negatives

The increased popularity of photography from the 19th Century owes much to the invention of Glass Plate Negatives, this technique in different forms would be used until the invention of film photography. The term actually refers to two similar techniques of capturing a photograph, wet plate and dry plate.

Wet plate as its name suggests involved exposing a wet plate to capture an image. The first version of this was produced in 1851 by the inventor Frederick Scott Archer. A glass plate would be spread with flammable liquid and then placed in a bath of silver nitrate, this would then make it photosensitive. After this, it would be exposed in a camera to capture a photograph. This was the dominant technique up until the 1880s, after which it would be replaced by the dry plate technique.

The dry plate technique, again as its name suggests, was different in that a dry plate would be exposed in the camera. A light-sensitive emulsion would be fixed to the glass plate, dried and then would be exposed in a camera to capture an image. This technique would continue to be used until the first part of the 20th Century, where film would replace the glass plate.

Due to the fragile material, if not stored correctly it is easy for the glass plates to be damaged. One of the most common causes of damage is stacking the negative one on top of each other. It doesn’t take long for this to get quite heavy, which can then damage to the negative on the bottom of the stack. This is what has happened to the negative on the right. 

Within our collections, we have a wide range of glass plate negatives, including this one of a Norse Mill on the Faroe Islands. You can read more about the story of this picture in our gems section here.