Introducing The Argus Glass-plate Negatives
7 June 2016
By Kate Elms and Emma Skinner
The newspaper archive is one of The Keep’s best-loved local history resources – it’s rare for a day to go by without at least a handful of people coming through our doors to search through back issues of The Argus or one of the other Brighton and East Sussex papers that we keep on microfilm in our Reference Room. What we have never been able to offer, however, is the opportunity to view the photographs accompanying the published articles and reports, which range from events of national importance to family weddings and local sporting encounters. But thanks to some of our wonderful volunteers, we’ve taken the first steps to making digital copies of some of these images more accessible.
The Keep holds a substantial collection of glass-plate negatives from The Argus‘s photographic archive. Some came directly from the paper to East Sussex Record Office, others were part of Brighton Museum’s local history collection and have recently been integrated with ESRO’s holdings. They date from the early 1930s to the early 1960s and, potentially, offer a tantalising visual record of Brighton’s history at this time. However, before any of these images can be viewed, there is an enormous amount of work to be done.
The first phase, now complete, took place in our conservation studio, where a dedicated group of volunteers have been meeting every Thursday for the past 18 months to clean the negatives. Around 15 people have been involved in the project, some coming for a few months, others just in the school holidays or in between paid work. A core group have come in nearly every week since September 2014. Over the weeks, they all gained confidence in their manual handling of these fragile items and, after a few boxes, became highly adept at cleaning, documenting and repackaging something in the region of 40,000 glass plates.
The conservation process initially required assessment of the boxes in which the negatives had been stored in the delivery area of The Argus‘s office in Hollingbury. The completion of documentation is a core conservation task and serves to record all treatment carried out on the plates themselves. Gelatin silver glass plates are covered with a gelatin coating containing silver particles making up a negative photographic image. They are prone to silver mirroring (bloom) and delamination, whereby the emulsion comes away from the base caused by extremes in relative humidity and poor storage conditions.
The plates were lightly brushed on both sides to remove surface dirt, and then cleaned on the glass side only with cotton wool and a small amount of water. It was often challenging to tell the glass side from the emulsion side and, for the first few weeks, the volunteers would need a second opinion before they became confident in telling them apart. Once cleaned, the glass plates were repackaged; with nearly half of the original boxes damaged beyond repair, new ones were made with acid-free card. Gloves were worn at all times, and extra care had to be taken handling cracked or broken plates. These were packaged separately, with the contents clearly marked that extra precautions should be taken until further conservation treatment could be carried out.
We originally predicted it would take three years to complete this project, and so to finish in just 18 months is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our conservation volunteers. They did admit, however, that they were pleased they never saw the archive in its entirety at the beginning as it would have been overwhelming to see the extent of the task ahead!
The next step, which will be equally challenging and time-consuming, involves matching the numbered negatives to their corresponding entries in the negative registers. The registers were completed by Argus staff at the time the photographs were taken, providing details of their subject, where and when they were taken, and where and when they were published (the registers also refer to photographs published in the Brighton Gazette and Sussex Daily News). While one dedicated volunteer transcribes the registers, creating digital records that can later be uploaded to The Keep’s online catalogue, another is scanning the negatives themselves – one numbered box at a time – creating an archive of fantastic images.
The two strands of work are being carried out simultaneously and, when the job is done, it should be possible to search for images using a keyword, name or date. This is because the cataloguing process will cross-reference entries in the negative register with the scans of the negatives themselves. It’s a huge task – so please don’t inundate us with requests for specific photographs as we’re not at that stage yet – but it’s certainly a worthwhile one. Tests carried out so far suggest that the quality of these images is superb – although glass-plate negatives were disappearing from consumer use by the 1920s, some professional photographers continued to use them until about 1970 for this very reason.
We would not be able to undertake projects of this scale at The Keep without the time and skills offered to us by volunteers. We hope, in return, that they enjoy their time with us while developing their knowledge and skills, meeting other people who are interested in local history, and helping look after the wealth of material held in our archive.
Updates on progress with the Argus negatives will be posted on our blog and social media channels – watch this space!