The Glass Plate Technique

in ‘Capturing Nature: early scientific photography at the Australian Museum 1857-1893.’ Published by NewSouth Publishing and the Australian Museum (2019), pp.130-147.


This in-depth chapter focused on the practicalities of being an Australian photographer in the mid-late 19th century, when photography was not only a new medium for documenting the world but a precarious feat of experimental chemistry. The chapter was featured in the book ‘Capturing Nature: early scientific photography at the Australian Museum 1857-1893’ which accompanied an exhibition of the same name in 2019.

The evolution of quality and style of photography is surveyed in the Australian Museum’s collection - from early glass plates that have jagged edges, impure chemicals, and feature oddly stuffed animals, to later refined mass-manufactured glass plates, crisp chemical prints and standardised visual treatment of animal subjects.

By the 1870s, Sydney saw a boom in commercial photo studios. As photographic practices became more common, so too did the products required to create photographs. For this exhibition and book chapter, digitisation of the first 2,000 glass plates from the Museum’s collection were digitised and analysed.

The ability to produce perfect photographic prints from the one negative over and over (as opposed to the one-of-a-kind photographs produced by pervious techniques such as the daguerreotype or calotype), was invaluable for early scientists at the Australian Museum. Being able to send a photograph of an exotic new animal back to England gave a claimant empirical credibility and saved the them from having to part with their specimen. A photograph was proof.

In this chapter, each chemical step is outlined from the preparation of chemicals (which can take up to days to mix and ripen), to the exposure and development of the glass plate using silver halides, to the making of prints from paper soaked in egg whites.

Low, Vanessa. “The glass plate technique” in Capturing Nature: early scientific photography at the Australian Museum 1857-1893. NewSouth Publishing and the Australian Museum (Sydney), 2019, pp.130-147.