Developing Glass Plate Negatives From a 120-Year-Old Time Capsule

This video will most likely get you scouring your basement or attic for something as cool as 120-year-old glass plate negatives!

We’ve known Mathieu Stern to share some of the coolest and craziest photography stuff out there, but we have to admit we weren’t quite prepared for his latest find. In a video included in his blog post, the Paris-based photographer and filmmaker documented the Cyanotype developing process he did to create some beautiful prints of the 120-year-old glass plate negatives he found in his old family home. If you’re interested in alternative developing printmaking processes, or simply in the mood for a cool story, we suggest you check it out!

“Because of my last video, someone in my family told me about a possible time capsule in our old family house,” Mathieu wrote on his blog post. So, his investigation did yield something interesting: a box dating from around 1900 based on the objects inside. Included in these items were two glass plate negatives. He decided to create prints using one Cyanotype, of the oldest methods of creating solar prints.

Watch him get to work in the video below:

The time capsule had been sitting in the dark for over a century, but it’s amazing how the glass negatives were in such great condition that Mathieu was still able to make prints out of it. The Cyanotype process was a great choice to bring these images to life. Not only does this photographic printing process fit the era from which the time capsule belongs, but it also creates a moody, monochromatic image that effectively shows us what the images are like.

Curious about this cool printing process? According to Wikipedia, Cyanotype uses two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. Discovered and developed by English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel, he intended it to be for reproducing notes and diagrams (or blueprints, as most of us are more familiar with).

As demonstrated by Mathieu, equal amounts of the two chemicals were mixed then coated on paper. Once it dries, the paper is placed in a holder with the glass plate negative over the coated/photosensitive side. Then, the frame, with the glass negative side facing up, is placed under a UV lamp (or you can do this outdoors as well) and left for some 30 minutes. This essentially creates a contact print, which is submerged in water to “develop” the positive image. As a final touch, hydrogen peroxide solution is used to darken the image.

The resulting prints reveal a heartwarming fact also noted by Mathieu: a girl from the 1900s kept these negatives because she obviously didn’t want her beloved cat to be forgotten. We may never know much about the girl who owned the time capsule, but from the glass negatives we do know that she very much loved her cat. Such is the power of photography then and now!

Screenshot image from the video by Mathieu Stern