Glass-Slide Negatives

Stuart Vail, Editor-in-Chief

It certainly has been a long journey from the first successful attempts at primitive photography to the present. Long before megapixel digital cameras and photo-polymerisation (a process that etches the circuitry onto the motherboards of virtually every computer), the state-of-the-art was the glass-plate negative.

But before that, here’s a little history. Between 1826 and 1839, three men independently discovered the first photographic processes: Joseph Nicéphore Niepce (1765-1833), Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1789-1851), and William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877). British inventor Frederick Scott Archer then expanded their discoveries to produce the first usable glass photographic negatives in 1851, known as the wet-collodion negative, which allowed identical prints to be made in quantities.

Archer created a thick flammable liquid, called collodion, by dissolving explosive cellulose nitrate (gun cotton) in ether, alcohol, and potassium iodide, which was flowed onto a sheet of glass the size of the finished print. After plunging the plate into a bath of silver nitrate (turning the collodion into a light-sensitive silver iodide), Archer then put the coated glass plate in a plate holder in the camera, exposed it, and then developed the plate in the darkroom (or if on location, the developing tent). This process had to be completed before the collodion dried, which would have been about five-to-six minutes on a warm day.

By about 1870, the factory-made gelatin dry plate was introduced, and offered a far more convenient method of taking photographs, since the plates could be stored for months after they were used. They were coated with a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion that eliminated the dangerous and messy preparations of wet collodion. No longer was photography limited to the professionals, as amateur photographers and hobbyists alike began using the new medium. By 1888 George Eastman sold the first Kodak cameras and flexible roll films, revolutionizing photography and leading to the decline of glass plate photography, which disappeared altogether by the mid-1920’s. [See our feature on Luther Gerlach’s dry-collodion photography.]

The nine images above are from original dry-collodion, glass-plate negatives, circa 1917, found by Bill Bedard* in an old, dilapidated farm house in north-central Washington State. This collection of photos seems to record a road trip across the U.S. in a Model T, made by the family in the pictures. Bruce McCalley of the Model T Ford Club of America suggests that they may be driving a 1912 Ford Torpedo Runabout.

Not having the proper darkroom facilities to develop this medium, I scanned the glass plates and inversed the images in Photoshop, preserving as best I could the original quality. The black corrosion on the glass obviously is a major imperfection, showing the ravages of age and poor preservation, yet it also has created a new art form by lending a certain degree of nature’s indiscriminate “composition” to the end result.

The 1733 Ranch
(click for larger image)

What used to be the Watson Ranch on U. S. Highway 30 in Kearney, Nebraska (which had the world’s largest barn—see below), was purchased by the Wood’s Brothers on June 20, 1917, and renamed the 1733 Ranch because it was located 1733 miles from Boston and 1733 miles from San Francisco. Thanks to Kerry Elkins, formerly of Holdrege, Nebraska, for his helpful information. For more of the Watson/1733 Ranch story, visit the following websites: Watson Ranch Pt. I and Watson Ranch Pt. II.

The World’s Largest Barn (1900-1935)

Much has been written about this structure which was a landmark for travelers up the Platte Valley for over thirty years. Designed by Ohio State University Professor Oscar Erf, it was to be the first third of a 1,200-cow unit. Even at one-third its intended size, it was indeed an imposing structure. Owner Henry David Watson wanted to build the entire 1,200-cow unit but was persuaded against it by Professor Erf.

For all its spectacular prominence, the number of conflicting statements that can be found in accounts detailing the size of the structure is surprising. Pictures of the structure attest to its great size and the figures most commonly used are 300 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 56 feet high at the south end. It was built into the side of a hill so that teams of horses pulling loads of hay could be driven into the second floor from east or west at the north end of the structure. Nine hundred tons of hay could be stored on this level. Connected to the north end of the barn was a silo which held over 1,000 tons of silage.

Descriptions of the first floor vary even more. Such statements as “individual stalls for 200 to 300 cows” is common, while others put the figure as high as 400. There are also accounts which state there was room on the first floor for calves and the horses needed in the dairy work, in addition to that for the dairy cows. All feed was distributed and all refuse was removed in trolly cars.

[This information comes from any of the following sources: an unpublished masters thesis, H. D. Watson and His Agricultural Experiment, written by Floyd A. Miller; items in Kearney, Lincoln, and Omaha newspapers; a letter written by Will C. Scoutt to Floyd Miller; and data provided by Albert Kjar.]

*Bill Bedard is the uncle of TheScreamOnline Photo Editor, Joanne Warfield.