Printing From Beken Of Cowes Glass Plate Negatives

January 18, 2024
Printing From Beken Of Cowes Glass Plate Negatives

In order to make silver gelatin photographs today using the original glass plate negatives in the Beken of Cowes archive, which are over 130 years old, first the glass plate negatives needed to be cleaned and then scanned to produce a digital file. Here's how the arduous task of digitally restoring the Beken of Cowes photographs was completed by Paul Brett in 2015, by way of an example using Alfred John West's iconic photograph of Meteor II Aground in 1899.


Glass plate negatives were originally 'wet coated' at the time of use but in the latter part of the 19th century when the Beken of Cowes collection was made, pre-coated dry plates were widely in use. A light-sensitive emulsion of silver salts was coated onto the glass, which was then exposed to light capturing the image. In this example, the glass plate negative measures 12x10" and the restoration process is started by making a test scan, which takes 60 minutes, and produces a 600MB TIFF file, shown below.



This file is then converted from a negative to a positive, and it's now that one can assess the quality of the photograph and see any damage on the glass plate. The initial scan allows you to assess the focus, depth of field, overall composition, and quality of the original photograph.



When you zoom in on the computer, and inspect the fine detail of the photograph in a very high-resolution scan it soon becomes apparent what ageing and damage there is from handling and poor storage of the glass plate negative. What follows is an assessment of what digital restoration will be required to restore the image - dealing with dirt and dust on the glass plate, scratches or silvering of the glass plate emulsion, cracks in the glass or flaking in the emulsion that has lifted from the glass plate.


The glass plate in this example was then given a thorough clean. It was immersed in distilled water and a photo flow, and gently cleaned with cotton wool balls. After that, the plate was left to dry and then re-scanned. The second scan showed improvement, but still a large number of blemishes - black spots which are holes in the emulsion, and white marks which are dust embedded in the emulsion itself, which couldn't be removed with cleaning.


The final stage was the arduous task of removing this damage digitally within Adobe Photoshop, a painstaking job which took several days to complete, but well worth the effort, because the image is now as it was when Alfred John West made the photograph back in 1899.


 Sailing Yacht Meteor II Aground, 1897 by Alfred John West  |  5 Print Sizes Available  |  BUY


The last and most important part of the process is preparing the digital file for print, and the image is cropped to match the photographer's original print. The silver gelatin photographic paper is very sensitive and it required Paul Brett's experienced eye to ensure the image is printed with the right contrast and tone.


The final silver prints are made using a Lambda machine directly from a digital file, using silver gelatin paper, in which the image consists of silver metal particles suspended in a gelatin layer. Silver gelatin papers are made by applying an emulsion of light-sensitive silver salts in gelatin to a sheet of paper coated with a layer of baryta, a white pigment mixed with gelatin. The sensitized paper is exposed to light through a negative and then developed out-that is, made visible in a chemical reducing solution.


Silver gelatin prints remain popular today for their traditional aesthetic of strong blacks, subdued whites and because the silver halide crystals give a luminous quality, and ensure the print is truly archival, i.e. it won't fade when exposed to sunlight.


© Paul Brett & Luke Whitaker

Full Collection Of Prints Available Here



Print size Limited Edition Price
80 x 40cm 1/50 £995
120 x 60cm 1/25 £1975
160 x 80cm 1/25 £3500
200 x 100cm 1/25 £6750
2380 x 1190 1/25 £9975



Print Size Limited Edition Price
61.5 x 61.5cm 1/50 £995
80 x 80cm 1/50 £1595
100 x 100cm 1/25 £2500
120 x 120cm 1/25 £3500



Print Size Limited Edition Price
59.4 x 42cm 1/50 £775
83.5 x 58.5cm 1/50 £1295
118.9 x 84.1cm 1/25 £2500
168.2 x 118.9 1/25 £5950



Print Size Limited Edition Price
42 x 59.4cm 1/50 £775
58.5 x 83.5cm 1/50 £1295
84.1 x 118.9cm 1/25 £2500
118.9 x 168.2cm 1/25 £5950

About the author

Luke Whitaker

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