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Memento : Issue 16
12 memento january 2001 Through a glass darkly Ian Batterham, head of Conservation at the Archives, carefully handling a glass plate negative from our collection. Before taking a picture, a photographer had to go into a darkroom to load the plates into special 'dark slides'. The lightproof dark slides had removable sides to allow exposure of the negative. After replacing the side, the photographer returned to the darkroom to remove and process the negative. To take a shot, a photographer would slip the dark slide into the back of the camera, remove one of the sides and open the shutter to expose the plate. The difficulties of working with glass plate negatives are obvious. They were likely to break if dropped, which could easily happen when working in total darkness. Conservators and photographers today must handle glass plates with extreme care or risk seeing a valuable historic image smashed into hundreds of pieces. For this reason we have copied our holdings of glass plate negatives onto film, which is then used to make prints. The precious glass plate originals are carefully stored in our cold vault in special cushioned boxes. Our collection contains a wealth of historical images captured on glass plates, many taken in remote locations and under difficult circumstances. In our vaults we hold almost 8000 glass plates of early Canberra taken by government photographer William James Mildenhall, almost 2000 images of Papua captured by anthropologist FE Williams from 1922 to 1939 and many unique images of the Antarctic by Frank Hurley. We also hold some very early photographic panoramas of Australian towns and cities in the 1880s taken by BO Holtermann, which were printed from enormous glass plates, up to 22 by 18 inches. Unfortunately, in this case, we do not hold the plates themselves. Gradually, glass plates were superseded by the first of the flexible film bases, cellulose nitrate, a material which time revealed to be highly unstable. Glass plates on the other hand have proven to be quite enduring -- provided you don't drop them! When you're next popping a neat canister of film into your autowinding camera, think about the difficulties faced by early photographers. The negatives they used were made of glass, not the flexible plastic film we know today. These 'glass plate negatives' were bought in cardboard boxes, generally holding 12 plates. Plates varied in size but were usually quite large by modern standards -- 4 by 5 inches (10.2 x 12.7 cm) was common. They were treated with a light-sensitive emulsion to capture an image when exposed to light.