Tag Archives: museum collections

Amazing Negatives

I was definitely busy this year with photo research for the expansion of my book, Settling In: First Homes of the Prairies. The new book includes early homes from BC to Manitoba, and it spans a time-frame that begins with early forts and concludes with wartime housing in Western Canada. So, given the expanded time-frame and content, I needed new photos.

During the process, my most exciting photo finds were two glass negatives. They belonged to my mother’s friend, Kathleen Kossowan, and they were from her family’s photo collection. Although I had long known about glass negatives, I had never actually seen them. So, I found it fascinating to view the black and grey images printed on the glass “plates,” which are about 5 by 7 inches in size. Similar plates are part of many museum collections, but to be personally entrusted with two of them was thrilling and helped me feel connected to our photographic past.

Collodion wet plate negatives were used from about the 1850s to 1880s, and since the ones I was offered were from the early 1900s, they had to be silver gelatine dry plate negatives. With the process invented in 1873, the negatives were widely used from about 1880 to 1920. In Alberta, museums and archives such as Glenbow in Calgary recognize the importance of photos to understanding and appreciating our history, and they have been supportive and helpful to me regarding my projects. Although glass negatives are part of their collections, having the negatives developed or scanned would be a big ticket item for their budgets, and cost concerned me, too.

As an individual writer with limited resources, although I wanted to use one or both images, I wasn’t sure if I could locate a local photographer or photography business able to develop them. Years ago, I had found an individual to develop black and white film negatives, but having the work done had been costly. This time, despite the availability of better technology, I assumed having the glass negatives developed might prove impossible or very costly.  So, as an experiment, I tired scanning the negative on my printer. The result was dismal, and the images were far too dark to see.

Next, I went to my favourite camera and photography store, Vistek, in Calgary.  The professionals there would have more knowledge and better access to whatever equipment might be needed. The individual with whom I had worked previously regarding special orders said, “Yes. We should be able to do the job.” Unfortunately, there was a problem with paper being stuck to one of the negatives, but that is another story. I had the two images scanned, and one will be on the cover of Settling In: Early Homes of Western Canada. The book should be in my hands in a week or two, and needless to say, “I can hardly wait!”

In the meantime, my sincere appreciation goes to Kathleen Kossowan and her family, the photo wizards at Vistek, and my editor at Detselig Enterprises, James Dangerous, who chose the image for the book cover. On behalf of myself and other photo buffs, many thanks!

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