In the last few months I bought a large set of glass plate negatives off the internet. I am easily drawn in when I see a good deal when it comes to old photography. This was a set of 34 glass plate negatives still in a couple of boxes. The man I bought them from hadn’t really looked at them or done anything with them just bought them at an estate sale and wanted to re-sell them. It was a photographic mystery I couldn’t resist.
One of the fun things I find in looking at old photographs and negatives is seeing how people used the medium. In this particular set it was mostly pictures of people that were from a couple of families. This isn’t really unusual, most of the images were taken on location (at homes, in barns, at businesses) which also isn’t that unusual but there were definitely some very unique ones in the mix.
The boxes that the negatives came in were dry plate boxes from the Imperial Dry Plate Co. in London. I did find that a bit unusual as I am in the United States and the person I bought them from was also in the U.S. It’s entirely possible these images were taken over seas and then brought to the states through the photographer or a someone else. It is amazing to me to think these delicate plates made it all the way over here from England in such great condition. It is also equally as possible that the plates were from England and the pictures were taken here, or those boxes were just used to keep the plates safe and had nothing to do with these images. That’s kind of the fun and the frustrating part of this whole process. There are so many possibilities of the origins of any picture and if you want to figure it out you have to be open minded to any possibility.
Based on the medium (the glass plate negatives) and the clothing of the people in the images I am estimating that images were most likely from the later 19th century or early 20th century and probably a range of time as it seems to be different seasons in the images and even some of the clothing styles seem to suggest different time periods.
I try and start with an image that has a lot of information but very little distractions. What I mean by that is that there is a subject (like people with easily identifiable clothing or a prominent building) and that subject is fairly isolated and can be easily investigated for detail (I can use my loop to get a closer look).
I started with this group on the porch. There were a couple of different plates that were taken on this porch with the same people in different arrangements. I am not a professional photo archivist or historical interpreter so my investigation is highly unlikely to lead to identifying who these people are (or at least not until I have a lot more time to do research). I mainly wanted to take a closer look at what they were wearing, how they were posed, and anything else that might just stick out to me. I just look up general things at first, because I don’t have specific knowledge or training in historical interpretation. I try to find “clues” like clothing, or the doll in this image, that might lead to more information. Try to keep in mind though, one image rarely ever tells the whole story in this process.
I mentioned that I look at things like composition. What I mean by that is I take into consideration how the people, or subject matter, is arranged in the image.
This particular image stuck out to me because of composition. The man in the image is placed off center (to the left of the middle of the image). This type of composition is common among artists, or people who have study composition. It could be the photographer was just trying something out or wanted the door in the image for some reason. Whatever is the case, I find myself thinking that an artist was taking this image. Whether or not they knew it at the time, this image is wonderfully composed and a work of art. At this point there is really no way for me to know if that was intentional or not, but it is important to make note of this and keep in mind during the entire process.
Another clue I look for is signage. It is one of the easiest things to research (or at least most of the time it is). There was only one image in all of 34 that had a sign in it.
This is an image of two men in front of a building and a sign that is in what I believe to be French. The rough translation of what I think it says is “Lots for sale payable by the week for 10 years without interest.” This is an image to me that has a lot going on. Between the signs, the men and what they are wearing and how they are posed, it will probably take a me a little while to completely understand all that I can take away from this image. I don’t have a lot of knowledge of this type of advertisement and where that advertisement would have been common during this time. That is one of things I am looking in to now. Another piece of the larger puzzle that takes time and research to fully understand.
An even more complicated image, for me, from this set was the image of the boats. To someone who knows the history of boats or of the navy this may be incredibly obvious but I am not sure where these boats are or what they were used for. I start by doing research of boats from the earlier 20th century and late 19th century. When I have a good idea (or a good guess) of what I’m looking at, I will most likely try contacting someone who is an expert in that particular field to get their input on what the image is of which will either verify my own research or help to point me in another direction.
Through the research there is a lot of guessing and verifying. That is how I find out a lot of information. I make the best guesses I can first come up with, research that idea or topic, and then contact experts in that field to verify or point me in a new direction. It is a very long and tedious process. The fun part is, though, I am learning so much every single time I get a new photograph. I will never have all the answers. But to me, that is part of what makes a good mystery. You can study it, research, and study some more, and figure some things out. Then put it down for a while and come back to it later with a new perspective.
The process has also taught me patience. So much patience. I have researched photos in the past that I just know I have exhausted all avenues of research for, and then I pick up the same photo months later and think of something different to try and there it will be, something that helps me to identify the image.
So why do I do it? Why put in all this time and effort to looking into people I don’t even know and their photographs? Well primarily because I find photography fascinating and its uses over the late 19th century and early 20th century incredibly intriguing. There is also a need I recognize to preserve this history. These people are gone, these photographic processes are fading and gone out of the popular use of the medium. I preserve them and research them to keep the history alive and available for anyone who wants to know. If you don’t know how we got the technologies we have today I feel like you are missing out on a lot of understanding in how it can be used and why it is used. Just from a historical view point, preserving amateur (and professional) historical photo processes helps us to show each other and future generations where we came from. That matters. Whether it is to learn about a way of life or learn about your family history, it is important.
My process is not perfect, but I just wanted to share a little insight into how I work in my photo research. This research and all these images and their photographic processes inspires so much of my own artwork. I guess I am thankful to the people who decided to safe keep all these images along the way that I now have the opportunity to be inspired by them.