Lost and Found Glass Negatives
- Ibolya Nemeth
- 1st September 2020
With autumn looming, a project I have been putting off for years, over 15 years in fact, is finally getting started. What was stopping me was finding a way to scan in a few boxes of old glass negatives my mother rescued from a fire. Sadly thousands of these glass plate negatives vanished forever, taking people’s faces away eternally. The story started when my mother walked by an old photographic studio in my Hungarian hometown Mosonmagyaróvár. For years and years the photographic studio in my hometown, belonging to the Reiter family, had generations of photographers working there. They recorded the history of the town in people’s faces. Men, women, children all came to preserve themselves for years to come.
Sadly, when the last generation of the family chose not to continue with the photo trade, and instead of giving away the thousands of negatives to a museum or library, they decided to burn them all on a bonfire. Some survived, and it’s thanks to my mother, who's shock at seeing these negatives getting ready to be destroyed, prompted her to ask if she could take some. They didn’t care so she managed to rescue a few boxes. When I was studying photography, I brought them back with me to London and spent time exposing them in the darkroom. However, only now when my colleague suggested to get them scanned in digital format, have I decided to make them into a Bob Books photo book.
Collodion Wet Plate Negatives were in use from 1851 until the 1880s, invented by Frederick Scoff Archer, an English sculptor, who using a viscous solution of collodion, coated glass with light-sensitive silver salts. There are two basic types of glass plate negatives - Collodion Wet Plate and Gelatine Dry Plate. The wet collodion process had a key disadvantage. The entire process, from coating to developing, had to be done before the plate dried. This gave the photographer 10 minutes to complete everything and required a portable darkroom. The dry plate was invented in 1879, with a dried gelatin emulsion. The advantages were great as these could be stored for longer periods of time, and photographers no longer needed portable darkrooms. It was now possible to use hand held cameras.
Sadly we don’t know much about the Reiter family, they had their studio in the old part of town and would have photographed most of the locals. However, there are more negatives that will need scanning, and some of them look like they would have been shot outside. The town of Mosonmagyaróvár (population 32,000) is situated in the northwest corner of Hungary and has been inhabited for over 2,000 years. The people on these images probably lived there all their lives. They might have only been photographed once and, I feel, now have been resurrected. We don’t know anything about them but we can guess and that’s what I am trying to do when looking at their mysterious faces looking back at me. The man in the uniform, did he go to war? The young women, have they become mothers, grandmothers? The old man with the very distinguished moustache, which was very popular with the farming community, why did he decide to get his photo taken? What saddens me is that the relatives of these people will not know that these photos exist. Just imagine finding long lost photos of your great grandparents, it would be the best treasure you have ever found.
These faces speak to us across the decades and centuries, reminding us that we are just a few generations away from the tumultuous course of European history, and the great calamity that met these families in the early part of the 20th century. To me this has been a project that has brought me closer to my ancestors and given me renewed pride in my hometown. The fate of these photographs was destined to become ashes but I feel privileged to have been able to salvage these images and preserve them for future generations in a Bob Books photo book.
"A man's face as a rule says more, and more interesting things, than his mouth, for it is a compendium of everything his mouth will ever say, in that it is the monogram of all this man's thoughts and aspirations." Arthur Schopenhauer