Inside the Collection

Doing jigsaws at work, recapturing an 1880s image

Photograph of the Mr Taylor recovered glass plate negative
The recaptured image from an all but destroyed glass plate negative

Most people don’t have the patience to attempt what our recent intern, Amir Mogadam from the Universtiy of Newcastle has just finished – probably one of the most challenging jigsaws you’re ever likely to see. But conservators are a patient if somewhat quirky mob. Amir worked with conservator Rebecca Main on a storage project to condition report, treat and rehouse a collection of large glass plate negatives (515 x 415mm) which were produced around 1870-1880 at the Freeman Brothers Studio, Sydney.

Photograph of the Mr Taylor recovered glass plate negative
The recaptured image from an all but destroyed glass plate negative

The large glass plates were stored in their original, wooden storage container in upright positions. Whilst most of the negatives were in reasonable condition, there were a few that were almost completely ruined, particularly the one of Mr Taylor.

Photograph of the original glass plate negative storage container
The glass plate negatives in their original storage container

The glass plate negatives in their original storage container

Mr Taylor’s glass plate was unreadable and very deteriorated. Most of the emulsion had separated from the glass and was scattered in curly, fragile strips and pieces at the bottom of the storage box.

Photograph of the curled emulsion pieces of the glass plate negative
The jigsaw unfolds – the condition of the Mr Taylor glass plate negative when it was removed from the storage box

All the detached pieces of emulsion were collected from the box. Amir painstakingly uncurled the emulsion and pieced the image together. This was a very slow process as the fragile emulsion wanted to stay in its curly state. Once Amir found the correct location of a piece of emulsion, he held it flat, in place with a piece of mylar (clear, stable, polyester sheet) and a glass weight. Once one section was completed, he held the pieces in position with a sheet of mylar and weights on the edges. He could then start piecing more emulsion pieces in place. To view the emulsion it needed to be back lit using a light box.

Photograph of Amir laying the curly emulsion into place
Amir piecing the pieces of emulsion together over a light box

Amir wanted to test how the emulsion could be secured to the glass plate with a suitable adhesive. The testing was done on some sacrificial non museum object samples. Two testing processes were carried out. The first involved placing glass and emulsion into a solution of 1 part gelatine/9 parts distilled water in the hope that the emulsion could then be manipulated back into position and held there. This was not successful because the gelatine became very weak and jelly like and unworkable. The second test involved brushing the diluted gelatine solution onto the emulsion. Once this was done, a piece of silicon release film was placed on top of the emulsion and it was gently massaged into place on the glass. A further test was done to assist with the flexibility of the curly emulsion. A consolidant called Klucel-G was applied to the emulsion. This made the emulsion much less brittle and easier to work with.

Photograph of adhering the emulsion into place with the gelatin solution
Dilute gelatine solution is applied by brush to the emulsion and gently massaged into place
Photograph: the emulsion is glued into place with the gelatin solution
Klucel-G is applied to the glass plate with a brush

The conclusion was that the second test was much more successful than the first. Amir also found that softening the brittle, curly emulsion with Klucel-G first before adhering the emulsion to the glass plate was recommended.

For this project, it was not possible to adhere the emulsion into place on the glass plate because of limited resources. The glass plate negative has been sandwiched between glass and held in place with tape around the edges. It is now possible to make sense of the glass plate negative that most people would have thought was unreadable. A positive image has been created from it using Photoshop.

The rest of the glass plate collection has now been treated and rehoused in individually packaged archival boxes with stable foam padding to protect them.

Photograph of safe new storage for the glass plate negatives
The glass plate negatives in their new storage boxes

Another of the outcomes of Amir’s internship was the production of a poster that was shown at the joint meeting of the AIC Photographic Materials Group and the ICOM-CC Photographic Materials Working Group which was held at Te Papa, New Zealand from 11-15 February, 2013. Conservators Rebecca Main and James Elwing and TAM photographer, Michael Myers assisted Amir with the poster. It  is titled ‘Preservation of historic glass plate negatives with limited resources’ and it documents the testing and treatment of glass plate negatives, with dramatic before and after treatment images of the Mr Taylor plate.

Kate Chidlow, conservator

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