Glass plate negatives hold key to producing portraits
By Shelby Horton
Patrick McIntyre, a Hutchinson Community College student, watched anxiously over the shoulder of the HCC basic photography instructor Alan Montgomery, as the teacher brought Patrick’s great-grandfather to life.
McIntyre had joined the photo class in their darkroom on April 20.
He gazed happily as a sharp image of Eugene Patt, a sergeant in the German army in World War II, appeared on photo paper in the developing solution.
The only other likenesses of Patt were on some three-inch square group pictures, in an old album, in which his face was so tiny it was difficult to see him.
But there were two glass plate negatives, found amid his possessions, which showed what Patt looked like early in the war and after the war.
The plates were brought into the HCC darkroom, where custom negative holders had been created for them, and they were slid into one of the Bessler enlargers, one at a time.
As Montgomery worked with the glass negatives, his students observed the process, noting adjustments made to get the best prints.
It was not easy. The negatives had extremely fine-grained emulsion. One was overexposed at the time it was taken, making the dark emulsion overly dense in lighter places, such as on the face.
It required many delicate manipulations of light, with filters and other tools, with much trial and error.
After two print sessions — the second one taking two hours — good prints had finally been made and McIntyre was joyful with the results, seeing a portrait of his great-grandfather for the first time.
“It’s like looking back in time,” he said.
Glass plate negatives were used to photograph the American Civil war.
But the technology was largely considered outdated in the U.S. after the invention of roll film in the late 1880s, by Charles Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak.
Glass plates, however, were still in use in Europe by serious photographers into the 1930s, ‘40s, and even later.
Today, the plates are still used for certain applications, such as astronomy, because it produces resolution that is superior to high-tech digital camera technology.
“This was just a great experience for all of us,” Montgomery said. “This is one of the reasons we treasure this darkroom and its historic and artistic capabilities.”
The process of printing McIntyre’s glass negatives was recorded with one of the journalism program’s high-tech Canon 50D digital cameras.
It has low-light capabilities that allow it to record images in the darkroom, lit only by amber safe lights.
“While we have the latest in professional digital cameras that we use in our newspaper and advanced photography classes, I am one of many who believe in teaching Basic Photography with film and darkroom,” Montgomery said.
“Film, emulsion and darkroom printing has had a great impact on world cultures — in documenting news, history and in art.”
It is the foundation upon which digital photography was built. Photoshop software is “full of darkroom tools and techniques,” he said.
“Students who experience the darkroom never forget it,” he said. “It is a privilege and a joy.”