Civil War Negatives in water

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mklaene

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I know this is an odd question but curious on opinions...

For a Civil War era wet plate negative, that had been 'fixed' by the photographer, and was then lost in water (e.g. submerged in a river) - would it stand any chance of surviving? I have heard stories of plates being lost in water, discarded or when boats capsized. I was just curious how susceptible to the image being washed away. I know the sun can easily burn the emulsion away. I assume water/current would quickly do the same. Any thoughts?
 

bankerpapaw

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I read once about such an abundance of glass plate photos after the war that they were used in greenhouses. Naturally. the exposure to the sun "washed out" the pictures. Has any one heard about this?
 

Northern Light

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I believe that has been proven to be wrong and that all or .most of Brady's negatives are stored somewhere. I'll have to look it up
 
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AndyHall

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I read once about such an abundance of glass plate photos after the war that they were used in greenhouses. Naturally. the exposure to the sun "washed out" the pictures. Has any one heard about this?
This was described in the Ken Burns documentary -- last episode, I think.
 

Northern Light

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Here w go, from the Library of Congress:
After the Civil War, Brady was faced with mounting debts. In an effort to save his business, he tried to sell his collection of war views. Having risked his fortune on his Civil War enterprise, Brady lost the gamble and fell into bankruptcy. His negatives were neglected until 1875, when Congress purchased the entire archive for $25,000. Brady's debts swallowed the entire sum. He died in 1896, penniless and underappreciated. In his final years, Brady said, "No one will ever know what I went through to secure those negatives. The world can never appreciate it. It changed the whole course of my life."
 

chubachus

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I read once about such an abundance of glass plate photos after the war that they were used in greenhouses. Naturally. the exposure to the sun "washed out" the pictures. Has any one heard about this?
The myth that will never die thanks to Ken Burns! There might have been local photographers selling their old glass negative portraits for such ventures, but there were definitely not any Gardner or O'Sullivan negatives ending their days that way.
 
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mklaene

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Thanks for the replies. Yep. I'm aware of the damage that the sun can do to those negatives. I was speculating, more specifically, what water might do. As I said, I'm guessing those negatives would be stripped of anything they contained on their surface in a short matter of time. However, I got to thinking about this after a couple of cases I had heard about this:
  1. The story, doubted by many, that Gardner took Booth's death photograph and that, after a single print was made, Seward or someone in the government disposed of the photograph, possibly sending it to the bottom of the Potomac.
  2. Tim O'Sullivan, while photographing the west, lost a large collection of his negatives when his boat overturned in the river.

I got to thinking about these cases and just how fragile the negatives are when sitting on the bottom of a lake or river.
 

chubachus

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Speaking of photographs lost in water, I read somewhere that the 1840's Franklin Expedition to the Canadian Arctic had a daguerreotype camera with them and that there is a possibility some exposed daguerreotypes could be found on the recently discovered sunken HMS Erebus or HMS Terror if it is found.
 

chubachus

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I was speculating, more specifically, what water might do. As I said, I'm guessing those negatives would be stripped of anything they contained on their surface in a short matter of time.
I'm guessing this is true as I have never heard of recent relic hunters or archaeologists digging up any tintypes or ambrotypes from the ground. I assume ones buried on land would go through similar conditions as those being buried in sediment underwater.
 
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alan polk

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I have a friend who was metal detecting for Civil War relics and somehow found a tintype (or whatever the correct name is for what exactly he found) in the ground. You could still see the image, though very faint. If anyone wants, I will contact him and see if he'll take a picture of it and I'll post it here for review.
 

mklaene

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Very interesting read! Though this paragraph does suggest the chance of survival of glass negatives is not good, when deposited in less than ideal places:

"An ambrotype, an early form of photography in which the image is fixed as an emulsion on a plate of glass, is a particularly fragile thing, less likely than other early technologies such as daguerreotypes and tintypes to survive. Glass breaks, and even when intact, exposure to moisture or abrasion quickly destroys the film. The incredibly good condition of this picture, after at least 140 years in the ground, was hard to believe."
 
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chubachus

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I have a friend who was metal detecting for Civil War relics and somehow found a tintype (or whatever the correct name is for what exactly he found) in the ground. You could still see the image, though very faint. If anyone wants, I will contact him and see if he'll take a picture of it and I'll post it here for review.
I'd definitely like to see it.
 

alan polk

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Ok. I will contact him and see if he still has it and if he'll shoot pictures to me. Will keep all updated.
 

Boonslick

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A few years back while digging out a privy, we came across a collection of glass plate negatives. The neatly contained stack numbered about 40 plates. Unfortunately, the emulsion had disintegrated into a graphite type powder. Whatever these images could have been were no more. As a lifelong collector of 19th. century photographs, I was greatly disheartened...
 
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civilwarincolor

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I know this is an odd question but curious on opinions...

For a Civil War era wet plate negative, that had been 'fixed' by the photographer, and was then lost in water (e.g. submerged in a river) - would it stand any chance of surviving? I have heard stories of plates being lost in water, discarded or when boats capsized. I was just curious how susceptible to the image being washed away. I know the sun can easily burn the emulsion away. I assume water/current would quickly do the same. Any thoughts?
I have never heard of glass plates surviving under water. I think that they may have been able to survive for a short period (hours, maybe days) but have great doubt that they would have lasted any length of time. The challenge is that while the negative would have been "fixed" on the plate the collodion that remained as a film on the plate would eventually break down and you would end up with a chemical mess and eventually blank glass (if they survived breaking).
 

civilwarincolor

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This was described in the Ken Burns documentary -- last episode, I think.
The myth that will never die thanks to Ken Burns! There might have been local photographers selling their old glass negative portraits for such ventures, but there were definitely not any Gardner or O'Sullivan negatives ending their days that way.
Ken Burns did mention this in the documentary and it is referenced in the Wikipedia for Mathew Brady here, but I have not seen any actual proof for this. A modern greenhouse was constructed using modern glass plates just to show how they might have looked. More here. They also say that this is more of an urban legend. It was covered previously in this thread.
This site seems to feel that the source for the story may have been Andrew Russell, but does not have any period sources of examples.

So could there be some that were used for greenhouses? Unless a greenhouse turns up with the glass with all or part of an image I don't think we can prove it. You mentioned that this may have been the case with some local photographers, but not Gardner or O'Sullivan (I would include Barnard, Pywell & Roche in the mix as well). If glass plates were reused though my feeling it would have been copy negatives. It was common for photographers to make copies of the plates for printing purposes (you had to print from the negative and it would wear out, so use a copy for the print - save the original). They also made copies to sell to other photographers, this is where most of the reprints from the 25th anniversary stereo cards came from and finally extra copies were made just to keep a backup "just in case". Glass plates are very fragile (and flammable!).

My feeling is that IF any plates were used for greenhouses that it was most likely these copy plates that had been worn down from printing/exposure that would have been used.
 

alan polk

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Ok. I will contact him and see if he still has it and if he'll shoot pictures to me. Will keep all updated.
I heard back from my friend. I got the facts wrong. He told me that what he found buried in the ground at a Civil War site was not a tintype from the 19th century, but was a "half-tone plate" - whatever that means- from the early 20th century. Sorry guys.
 
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civilwarincolor

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I heard back from my friend. I got the facts wrong. He told me that what he found buried in the ground at a Civil War site was not a tintype from the 19th century, but was a "half-tone plate" - whatever that means- from the early 20th century. Sorry guys.
Halftone plates would be used for printing in newspapers/magazines. During the CW it was not possible to print a photograph in a newspaper so artists were employed to either draw the scene directly or use a photograph to draw the scene for etching on a print block for the newspaper/magazine.

Basically a halftone plate converts the image into a series of dots that can be published using traditional print methods. The first successful use of this was in 1873 (see here for more info). This is still the basic method used today for magazines/newspapers.
 

O' Be Joyful

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IF any plates were used for greenhouses
Hmm...an attempt at advancing the process of photosynthesis?:D

But seriously, would the glassplate used for photos have the proper thickness or strength to be practical for use in a period greenhouse? And one would think that any remnants of the emulsion would have to be removed prior to construction to allow the desired amount of sunlight.
 
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