Celebrating World Photography Day with... Glass Photos?

While sorting through the archives of our museum, our Library Curator Arie Hammond made a discovery that spurred her into action. She found that Museum staff of the past had taken great care to photograph important moments, landscapes, each other, and so much more—but these portraits of past leaders and the environments they fought to conserve were printed on fragile plates of glass. 

From the late 1800s to the late 1920s, photographers often used dry glass plate negatives. These are thin squares of glass coated in light-sensitive chemicals that are then dried for an “easy” and clean photographing process. These fragile photos of San Diego’s early natural history were sitting—undocumented—in our archives, waiting for someone to find them and bring their contents to light.  

I knew that we needed to get these glass photographs digitized and properly preserved,” says Arie. “But I also knew that I know nothing about historical photography—or even modern photography. 

Immediately after discovering the plates, Arie applied for a Parker Photo Grant to hire apprentices to ensure these fragile photos survived.  

"It was imperative that we hired knowledgeable staff to help,” she said. “In particular, I wanted staff who were just starting their careers, and could use this project as a stepping stone to greater things.” 

I joined the team to digitize, properly archive and store these glass photos. As I worked through thousands of plates, I felt inspired to continue the story the glass plates were telling. A hundred years from now, I want our archive to include the people that make our museum what it is today. So, I set out to take glass plate portraits of our Nat staff to highlight the legacy they are actively leaving. I used the archived glass plates as reference photos for some and created entirely new scenes for others.  

As I began taking my glass plates, I realized just how difficult of a process it was. I was photographing on a breakable object, and the plates needed much more light exposure than normal film to create a proper image. The plates required four to six seconds of exposure in a shady environment, which meant my subjects had to stay completely still for several seconds or longer for a clear and focused image. It was tough, but this is the nature (and fun) of the process. Even the glass plates I was inspired by had evidence of motion blur. 

While shooting, I wanted to ensure our staff’s work was well represented. For someone like Brad Hollingsworth in our Herpetology Department, the shot needed to depict his field of work and his commitment to the specimens. According to Brad, he is an “advocate, diplomat, and voice” for amphibians and reptiles, including the specimens in our collection. He does not take his position lightly. The wet range, where our herpetology specimens are kept, is Brad’s favorite place in the museum.  

Our team is full of individuals who prioritize conserving our environment and, together, continue the mission of the scientists who came before them. Getting to know their stories and accomplishments was the best part of this whole experience, and I hope the efforts of our staff will be survived by the next generations to come.  

If you would like to learn more about the glass plate project, check out our archived collection on Flickr.

Campsite. Photo taken by Frank Stephens (1849-1937).

Current Entomology Collections Manager, Pamela Horsley.

C. G. Abbott on L. M. Huey's back, photographing Thrasher's nest. - San Felipe, Lower Calif., Mex. 1925.

Posted by Alex Tomeo, Parker Photo Apprentice on August 18, 2023

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