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Family history through the looking glass

Knowing my interest in photography, a friend was showing me a number of glass plate negatives he discovered when recently clearing out his deceased dad’s house. This was the first time I had ever seen photographic glass plates. 

It soon became clear, when holding the plates to the light, that what my friend had was an insight into his family history from the 1920’s. There were outline images of dapper gentlemen, pipes in hand and smart trilbies. Of young children larking on the local beach and a rather severe looking matron-like figure. It was absolute family gold.

A few years ago I started investigating my family history. There was a bit of depth in terms of developing the family tree: the dates of births, marriages and deaths, etc. But nothing came close to seeing images, from the glass plates, of people born in the mid 1800’s appearing on these undeveloped plates – albeit they weren’t my family members.

I suggested to my friend that I could convert the negative plates into digital positives. A few online searches later, I was soon putting together a dark box, purchasing an LED light box and setting up a fixed camera ready to take a digital impression of the glass plates.

Over 100 images were captured in RAW, with the invaluable help of Lightroom, the digital impressions were inverted to create a positive image. With a few more tweaks in Lightroom, a detailed view into my friend’s family in the 1920’s was revealed. It did not disappoint.

It’s remarkable that these glass plates survived unscathed for 90 years and live to tell a tale in the 21st century. I wonder how many of our iPhone selfies and Christmas Day jumper pictures survive the ‘delete’ button and help to tell a story in 90 years time in the 22nd century ?