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Conservation and restoration of photographic plates

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Glass plate negative
Glass plate negative

The conservation and restoration of photographic plates is the process of caring for and maintaining photographic plates in order to preserve their materials and content. It covers the necessary measures that can be taken by conservators, curators, collection managers, and other professionals to conserve the material unique to photographic plate processes. This practice includes understanding the composition and agents of deterioration of photographic plates, as well as the preventive conservation and interventive conservation measures that can be taken to increase their longevity.



Photographic plates consist of an image layered on a glass support. Glass plates emerged as a common support medium for photographic negatives in the mid-nineteenth century. In general, black and white photographic negatives are made up of fine silver particles, (or color dyes for color negatives), which are embedded in a thin layer called a binder. Combined with the image substance, these two elements make-up what is called the emulsion. This emulsion layer sits upon what is called the support, which can be paper, metal, film, or as in the case of photographic plates, glass.[1] Depending upon the time period, there can be variants to the binder and thus, the chemistry of the image. This is extremely important with the conservation and restoration of photographic plates because it helps the conservator prevent further chemical reactions. In the case of the Wet Plate Collodion, the image is run under a wash bath to stop the development of the image after exposure. An important part of the photographic process, "fixing," is then used to wash the silver particles that are not part of the image, which then produces a stable negative image. The fix bath will ensure that the remaining silver halide crystals are no longer sensitive to additional light exposure, removing all excess. This negative image can then be used over many years to produce paper positives. Glass plates as a form of support were popular in use between 1851 and the 1920s.[2]


Early wet plate collodion portrait of lady
Early wet plate collodion portrait of lady
  • Collodion glass plate negative: This process was invented by the Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. While the first process to take advantage of glass plates was an albumen, it was quite laborious and quickly surpassed by the collodion glass plate negative in common use.[3] The collodion photographic process was a wet place process, which meant that the glass plate itself had to be wet while it was exposed and throughout processing. This required a portable darkroom to be taken wherever a photographer went in order to successfully produce a negative image. During the process, the binder, composed of collodion, was poured onto a glass plate before being exposed. The glass plate was then developed, fixed, washed, and protected with a varnish.[4] Collodion is cotton dissolved in nitric acid. Because collodion was both complex and dangerous to produce, it was often purchased by the photographer. Once dissolved, iodide was added. Over time, bromide was added to help the image be more sensitive to light. Sometimes albumen (made of egg whites) was used to help the collodion stick to the glass plate. Pyrogallic acid or ferrous sulfate was often used to develop the latent image, then sodium thiosulfate (also known as hypo) or potassium cyanide was used to fix the image.[5]
  • Gelatin dry plate negative: This process was invented by Richard Leach Maddox in 1871, but it was not commonly used until 1879 when the process became commercially successful. Because of the advances this process made in photography, it soon replaced the wet plate process in the 1880s. The collodion binder formerly used was replaced by gelatin, which already contained the light-sensitive silver salts. This meant the emulsion was already present and did not have to be painted on the glass plate right before exposure - which now took less than one second. Because of this advancement, photographers did not have to carry their portable darkroom, but could be developed later on.[6] To make the gelatin dry plate, the glass was cleaned, polished, and treated to ensure the gelatin would adhere to the glass plate. Treatments of the glass include thin coats of gelatin, albumen, or chemical etching.[7] After 1879, when further improvements were made to the gelatin emulsion, gelatin glass plates began being mass-produced by companies such as Wratten & Wainright, Keystone Dry Plate Works, and notably the Eastman Dry Plate Company.[8] This led to the advanced use and production of photographic glass plates until around 1925 and marks the start of the development of modern photography as an industry.
  • Screen Plate: The Screen Plate process is also known as Autochrome Lumière and was invented in France in 1907 by Louis and Auguste Lumière. Screen plates were an additive color screen process that is considered the first successful color process for commercial photography. The Lumière brothers drew upon color theories by James Clerk Maxwell and Louis Ducos de Hauron from the second half of the 19th century.[9] Autochrome plates were, "covered in microscopic red, green, and blue coloured potato starch grains". These grains, prior to being placed on the glass plate, were sorted through sieves to break them down to, "thousandsths of a millimetre" in diameter. Once broken down in size, they were separated into groups, then dyed either red, violet, or green. The grains were mixed together then spread over a glass plate that was covered with a tacky varnish. A second varnish was then applied over the layer of starch grains[10].The second coating of varnish was a hydrophobic layer composed of castor oil, cellulose nitrate, and dammar resin.[11]
  • Ambrotype: The Ambrotype process resembled the Wet Plate Collodion greatly in composition and creation and was considered to be a "Collodion Positive". In 1850, Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard realized that by underexposing the image and placing the image against a dark background, the negative appeared as a positive. Dark backgrounds such as paints, fabrics, and papers were used to achieve this effect. In some instances, bleach was used after the image was developed to yield a softer image.[12] In this process, the chemical composition and fix bath are critical elements to the lifespan of the image, but the material that backs the glass plate may also cause deterioration.

Agents of Deterioration

There are ten accepted Agents of Deterioration: dissociation, fire, incorrect relative humidity, incorrect temperature, light, pests, pollutants, physical forces, thieves, and water.[13] Photographic plates face risks of deterioration from both external forces and from a plates own chemical composition. In order for a conservator to create an appropriate plan to protect against agents of deterioration, they must understand what might impact a photographic plate. The following list addresses how each agent of deterioration harms photographic glass plates.

Relative Humidity & Temperature

Relative humidity (RH) and temperature are two of the most common threats to photographic plates.[14] As with all material collections, high temperature in combination with high humidity can cause mold growth and attract pests.

Photographic plates face significant structural and chemical challenges unique to their make-up. There are two types of photographic glass plates; collodion wet plates and gelatin dry plates. Structurally, collodion wet plates are held together with a specific type of emulsion, made using a silver halide mixture in gelatin. Fluctuations in RH can strain the adhesive emulsion, causing the gelatin to expand and contract. The strain from incorrect RH can also cause the emulsion to crack or separate along the plates' edges.[15]With gelatin dry plates, high humidity can cause mold to grow on the emulsion.[16] High levels of humidity can cause glass plates that have been stored incorrectly to stick together, compromising the image on the plate. Increasing RH can cause deterioration of other elements; these include the silver halide, varnish, and glass support. Decreasing the RH will cause deterioration by eventually leading to the flaking of the binder and dehydration of the glass.[17]

Temperatures, much like RH, need to be precise and closely monitored for correct storage of photographic glass plates. A safe temperature to keep glass plates is 65°F, however a fluctuation of +/- 2°F would not cause a significant impact. Making the safest range 63°F to 67°F.[18] Low temperatures aid in slowing a plate's own inherent vice by delaying the chemical reactions that cause decay of the plate's structure. Increasing temperatures or frequently high fluctuations will speed the decay process.

Theft and Dissociation

Although theft and dissociation can occur separate from each other, it is not uncommon the two go hand-and-hand and occur simultaneously. Dissociation typically results overtime from an ordered system falling apart due to lack of routine maintenance updates, or from a catastrophic event leading to data loss.[19] If inventory is not regularly updated it could become easy for a single, or several, glass plates to go missing. Regular inventory maintenance can also serve as a deterrent against theft. Ensuring glass plates are locked and stored where only designated museum staff can access is the best preventative measure against theft.

Water and Pests

Deterioration in glass is often directly related to moisture, from humidity or direct contact.[20] Enough moisture over time will result in the chemical composition of the image to change. In the 1990s, The United States National Archive began to notice that some glass plates featured in their collection, on the non-photo baring side of the plate, a crystalline deposit, known as sick-glass, was present.[21] If a glass plate has been subject to large amounts of moisture, it could result in the growth of mold on the plate's emulsion. Mold will eat away at the emulsion and attract other living pests. Insects will be more likely to appear in areas that are already compromised from inappropriate storage conditions. Insects will produce waste materials that, much like dust, and build up over time, causing further damage. Pests also eat glass plate storage materials such as paper envelopes or cardboard boxes.


Photographic plates, along with all photographic materials, are very sensitive to light. Extensive and ongoing exposure to light can cause significant deterioration that is irreversible. Sunlight is the most damaging type of light to photographic plates. However, indoor lighting and other forms of UV lighting all pose a threat to photographic plates causing fading and yellowing.[22] Light is especially threatening to color photographic materials as it causes accelerated fading of the color dyes.[23] Exposure to light could deteriorate and lead to discoloration of the pigments present on the plate.

Pollutants and Fire

Air pollution can pose a threat to photographic plates through poor air quality and dirt that can damage the materials. This can include dust to gaseous pollution in an urban environment. Air pollution can cause fading of photographic materials. If a plate is subject to poor air quality, removal of the debris must be done with care using a cotton cloth, if done incorrectly the glass might be subject to abrasions.[24] Other sources of air pollution include "photocopying machines, construction materials, paint fumes, cardboard, carpets, and janitorial supplies," and other types of outdated media.[25]

Fire can cause serious damages to photographic glass plates. The heat produced by a fire can aid in increasing the rate of chemical decomposition of the plate's emulsion. Pollutants in the air that are produced by the fire, smoke and debris, can also attach or rest upon plates. The same care should be taken removing debris from a fire that would be used to remove dust and other air pollutants.

Material and Chemical

The glass composition of photographic plates can be a factor of deterioration. Due to poor quality or an inherent vice, "sick glass" can occur. Environmental conditions are usually linked to the increase or presence of this glass corrosion. The effect of "sick glass" can be weeping and crizzling which can be caused by excessive alkali present and a lack of stabilizers.[26] Weeping involves droplets forming on the glass that appear as small crystals. This type of deterioration is especially threatening for cased photographs because the cover glass could be corroded and damage the photographic image underneath.[27] Corrosion of the glass plate support can also damage the image layer by causing the lifting of the binder and varnish layers.[28]

The other chemical components of glass plate negatives can also be threatening agents of deterioration. For instance, the silver image layer could possibly undergo oxidative deterioration which can lead to fading and discoloration. Additionally, the collodion binder itself is made up of cellulose nitrate which is known to be a highly flammable compound. Most of these agents of deterioration are the result of poor chemical processing as result of inherent vice, but they are usually accelerated by poor environmental and storage conditions.[29]

Broken glass plate - Avdella, izgorena, 1905
Broken glass plate - Avdella, izgorena, 1905


Glass plates are rather stable dimensionally, but they are also very fragile and brittle.[30] Glass is brittle, it is highly susceptible to breakage, cracks, and fractures. This can be caused by human error; including dropping or bumping the glass plate, or it can be caused by failure of storage equipment, housing, shelves, etc. which may lead to an impact to the glass. Certain types of breakage and stress states affect the image layer and binder in different ways.

Types of breakage:[31]

  • Impact Break: Point of impact and surrounding radiating arcs.
  • Cracks: Running perpendicular to applied stress.
  • Blind Cracks: Breaks do not carry through the whole shard of glass.

Preventive conservation


Environmental controls are a crucial part of the preservation of photographic glass plates. Relative humidity (RH), temperature, and light play a large role in keeping the multiple materials in photographic glass plates maintained. The following regulatory measures are taken for their preservation:

  • For photographic glass plates, the temperature is kept cool at approximately 65 °F.[32]
  • RH levels are normally kept between 30-40%. If RH drops below 30%, the image binder of the glass plate will dehydrate. If RH rises above 40%, the glass will begin hydrating.[33] For cased glass plate photographs, such as ambrotypes, RH levels are kept between 40-50% and temperature between 65-68 °F. These levels differ because of the case and its risk for embrittlement, brass mat, and glass deterioration.
  • Though cold storage is safe for photographic plates, with proper acclimation periods to room temperature, frozen storage, unlike for film photography, is not recommended.[34]
  • Fluctuations, also called “cycling,” in RH and temperature should be avoided. Environmental fluctuations can contribute to mold growth, chemical deterioration including discoloration and yellowing, degradation of the silver halide crystals resulting in silver mirroring,[35] and deteriorationas well as deterioration of the emulsion.[36] Acceptable fluctuations include +/- 2 degrees for temperature and +/- 3% relative humidity. [37]
  • Photographic glass plates, especially negatives, are preserved in dark enclosures due to their risk of deterioration when exposed to light, particularly UV and sunlight. If displayed, spot-lighting, which is uneven heating to the photographic plate, is avoided. Light levels are kept below 50 lux.[38]


Photographic glass plates are handled carefully to avoid physical or chemical deterioration and damage – the following aids in their preservation through proper handling:

  • To prevent fingerprints, non-vinyl plastic gloves are worn when handling – either Latex or Nitrile. Cotton gloves are not recommended by conservators due to the possibility of glass easily slipping from the cotton material. Cotton gloves are also susceptible to snagging on the emulsion, if it is flaking, or on the edges of the glass support.[39]
  • When handling, a glass plate is not held by one edge or corner, rather it is held by two opposite edges and always with two hands.[40]
  • When laying the glass plate on a flat surface, it is always placed with the emulsion side up.[41]
  • Glass plates are never stacked or have any pressure placed upon them. The sleeve or enclosure is labeled before placing the glass plate inside.[42]
  • Since glass plates are fragile and brittle, duplicates are created if a glass plate is used often for printing. This helps to minimize the threat of breakage.[43]


Storage and housing of photographic glass plates is an important part of their preservation. Museums and other cultural institutions take the following measures to ensure their glass plates are properly housed:

  • Photographic glass plates are housed in four-flap enclosures, emulsion side up. These four-flap buffered enclosures prevent a glass plate from being pulled in and out, which would cause further deterioration to the image from flaking and abrasions. The four-flap enclosure allows the glass plate to be accessed by unfolding the flaps without having to pull the plate across any surface or material.[44]
  • The photographic glass plates are stored vertically on the long side of the plate in acid, lignin, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), dye, sulfur, and alum free storage boxes. The acidity of any paper storage used should be a pH between 7-8.5[45].Glass plates should not be packed tightly and should not rub against each other. Each plate should be separated individually with stiffeners made of acid-free folder stock or acid-free cardboard in order to support the plates.[46]
  • Photographic glass plates stored in a partially filled box will have spacers, most likely acid-free corrugated paperboard, inserted in order to prevent significant bumping or moving.
  • Glass plates that are larger than 10” x 12” are stored in legal size boxes that are partially filled to prevent a too heavy weight. The extra space in the box is filled with board or spacers to avoid shifting and jostling.[47]
  • Storage boxes consisting of photographic glass plates are stored on a lower shelf, specifically below four feet. This helps to prevent someone from lifting them down from above his or her head.[48]
  • Each storage box of photographic glass plates should be labeled with words such as “Heavy,” “Handle with Care,” “Caution: Contains Glass Negatives,” so all with access to the collection know to be extra careful when lifting the box off a shelf.[49]
  • When there are concerns about reactivity of housing materials, the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) by the Image Permanence Institute should be consulted. The use of the PAT is a standard in the preservation of photographic plates. The PAT, "explores the possibility of chemical interactions between photographs and a given material after prolonged contact".[50]
  • It is considered best practice to use steel shelving for storage of photographic plates. It is not recommended to use wood cabinets or crates. Wood shelves are susceptible to termites and are more prone to trigger chemical reactions with the plates. Wood shelves tend to possess finishes, paints, and glues that cause off-gassing. Acetic acid and formaldehyde build-up are more likely to occur as well. Lastly, given the weight of the photographic plates, it is more difficult with wood shelving to ensure they can hold the weight of the collection.

Storage of broken photographic plates

Broken or cracked glass plates are stored in a special manner, separate from other photographic plates and in the following ways:

  • Broken glass plates are stored flat, unlike intact plates which are stored vertically. It is recommended to stack broken plates only 5 plates high due to the weight of the plates. This will prevent further breakage and damage. [51]
  • Photographic glass plates that are cracked or have binder damage are stored on sink-mats.[52] Those with minor flaking are still housed in the four-flap enclosure that is labeled appropriately describing the damage. Glass plates with extensive flaking are stored on sink-mats horizontally and placed in a storage box with a label that reads “Caution: Broken glass. Carry Horizontally.” [53]
  • Broken glass plate shards are “sandwiched” in between two pieces of buffered board and placed inside the four-flap enclosure.[54]
  • AIC advises that form-fit support should be created for broken glass shards by cutting out two pieces of 4-ply mat board that fit to each shard. These pieces are then glued to each side of the buffered board with either wheat starch paste or 3M #415 double-stick tape. By placing each shard in between the form-fit support to help prevent further damage. These broken shards are then placed in individual four-flap enclosures and stored flat with appropriate labeling that warns of their broken condition.[55]
  • Another method of storing broken shards is to place them on sink mats. If this method is used, each piece is separated with paperboard spacers to prevent the pieces from touching. These paperboard spacers are sometimes attached with adhesives to the mat so that physical damage does not occur to the shards. They are stored horizontally and placed in a storage box with a label that reads “Caution: Broken glass. Carry Horizontally.” [56]


Maintenance/housekeeping of photographic plates requires minimal intervention:

  • For their preservation, light cleaning is carried out occasionally by removing dust with a soft brush.[57] For the emulsion side, to dust, it is best to use an unused paint brush and very gently, brush from the center to the outside of the plate. To clean the underside of the plate (non-emulsion side), dip a cotton ball or cotton round into a cup of distilled water, and work from the middle of the plate to the outside. Water will wash the emulsion away, causing the image to be lost forever, be careful to ensure this cleaning treatment is only used on the glass support underside and not the emulsion side of the plate.[58]
  • Conservators also keep the surrounding collections area clean of dust, pests, and any other debris that may attract pests. Food and drink should not be permitted in the storage area as they attract pests.[59] To prevent deterioration from air pollutants, it is helpful for conservators to have the air entering the storage area filtered and purified, windows closed, obsolete/outdated media minimized, and enclosures and cabinets used to protect collection objects.[60]

Conservation treatment

Broken or cracked glass plates compose a large portion of those in need of conservation treatment. There are various actions taken in reassembling and restoring these plates using the following materials and methods:


  • Conservators tend to wear Neoprene gloves to help protect the emulsion from fingerprints that will cause deterioration over time. They avoid handling glass fragments to help prevent potential further breaking of the glass. A padded (foamed polyethylene) and tight weave tissue or Sintered Teflon lined box are preferred by conservators to store fragments, as they help prevent further breaking or cracking.[61]


There is no one ideal adhesive used by conservators, each adhesive has benefits and disadvantages for different situations.

  • Paraloid B-72 - A solution of 50-70% B-72 in a solvent with added silica is used to reassemble glass plate fragments. It takes 1–2 hours to dry. One issue with this adhesive is that it creates "snowflakes" in between pieces, making an invisible reassembly impossible.
  • Epoxy resin - This adhesive is very strong and has minimal shrinkage. An issue with this method is that it yellows over time and is not advisable to be used on glass plates with a collodion binder. This is due to the potential damage to the collodion binder of the reversibility method.
  • Cyanoacrylates - This adhesive bonds strongly with alkaline surfaces but is very brittle and only used for temporary repairs.
  • Pressure sensitive tape - Plastic tape is very common and easy to use and is completely removable, but it only provides minimal support.
  • Sticky wax - As the pieces are assembled, sticky wax, such as that used for lost-wax casting in jewelry making, is very useful for holding the shards in place.[62]

Backing material

  • Silpat sheet - This is made of silicone and fibreglass; textured and provides air pockets to prevent damage from capillary application; it does not create trauma for the emulsion side of the glass.
  • Secondary support - This method is used for glass plates broken into many pieces or over 5 x 7 inches in size. Where a second piece of glass is used with silicone as a material to be inserted as a barrier layer.


  • Wicking - This is used by conservators to apply the adhesive to the glass with a wooden or glass applicator. A capillary tube or bottle is used to put the appropriate amount of adhesive on the glass shard without excess.
  • Direct application - When repairing a broken plate on an inclined plane, conservators directly apply the adhesive to the fracture interface. The shard is then placed directly next to its corresponding shard on the inclined plane.[63]

Repair methods & techniques

  • PhotoShop Software assembly - Virtually assembling broken glass shards through Photoshop by scanning or photographing all pieces is used by conservators. Once all pieces are within Photoshop, conservators will reconstruct a copy of the glass plate by moving and rotating the pieces until the glass plate is fully assembled. This allows for conservators to understand how the glass plate should be reconstructed while avoiding further damage and deterioration of the glass plate photograph. This method allows for further research and study of the plate is still possible without the risk of further damage through continual handling.
  • Inclined assembly - This method involves applying an adhesive to the glass shard interfaces and assembling them on an inclined surface covered with Mylar or Silpat. The glass shards are reassembled either by direct application, which involves applying the adhesive directly to the shard interface and attaching it to its corresponding piece; or they are assembled through wicking.
  • Vertical assembly - This method is used because of the manner in which the glass shards fit back together, which is the most accurate vertically. This also helps to protect the side of the binder layer. The adhesive is not applied until all of the pieces are assembled - this helps to recognize any misalignment before they are adhered together. As the last step, the adhesive is applied through wicking.
  • Light-line - This is often used to insure all of the pieces are aligned, as it allows a conservator to see any misalignment by producing a crooked line. Once the pieces are aligned, the light-line will be straight again.

Glass Plate Conservation Projects

The Glass Plate Negative Project at the Heritage Conservation Centre

  • The vertical assembly method along with a light-line is used in The Glass Plate Negative Project at the Heritage Conservation Centre as outlined in the case study. This study shows how conservators deal with other conservation issues as well including accretions and residue.
  • For instance, while the plates were considered structurally stable, they may have needed surface cleaning. This was completed by using swabs dampened with water/ethanol solutions in order to reduce stains or do away with any left tape residue.
  • Pressure sensitive labels were removed mechanically.
  • Conservators used Whatman lens tissues to wipe off any other residue marks.[64]
  • Terri Cappucci: Cappucci specializes in the preservation of glass plates and photographs using the method of Wet Collodion plating.[65]


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External links

Identification resources:

Conservation & restoration resources:

This page was last edited on 23 May 2022, at 18:10
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