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Most of the photos on this site were extracted from reference images (high-resolution tiffs, 20 to 200 megabytes in size) from the Library of Congress research archive. (To query the database click here.) Many were digitized by LOC contractors using a Sinar studio back. They are adjusted by your webmaster for contrast and color in Photoshop before being downsized and turned into the jpegs you see here.

 
 
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VINTAGRAPH • WPA • WWII • THE NAVY NEEDS YOU IN THE WAVES

Mammoth Plates: 1891

Mammoth Plates: 1891

Mexico circa 1891. "Ferrocarill Central Mexicano. Canal of Nochistongo," a drainage excavated in the 17th and 18th centuries to keep Mexico City from flooding. Note the giant camera and tripod employed by William Henry Jackson in the making of his heroically proportioned photographs, the largest of which were recorded on a medium the archivists call "mammoth plates" -- glass negatives that measured 18 by 22 inches. (This particular image was made on an 8x10 inch glass plate -- what modern photographers would consider "large format," but still only a fifth the size of an 18x22.) Detroit Publishing Co. glass negative. View full size.

 

Little Town in the background

I like how you can make out the little town in the background of the photo. You can see the big church with its dome and towers.

Very nice picture. I wonder where in Mexico this was taken.

Glass Plates

Glass plates were coated on the spot. Or at least the night before. The glass was the expensive part, the silver nitrate emulsion came in either screw top tins or light tight jars, and were coated in the field. If the plate negative was not satisfactory it was a simple matter to strip the emulsion, recoat the glass plate and try again.

[You're thinking of the wet-plate negatives used around the time of the Civil War. Most glass plates made after 1880 (including this one) are dry-plate negatives -- coated with emulsion by the manufacturer and presensitized. - Dave]

Rapido corren los carros

Makes me think of a rolling "rrrrrr" tongue-twister a Mexican priest taught me many years ago: "Rapido corren los carros cargados de azucar de los ferrocarriles."

The Big Picture

>> Were those "Mammoth Plate" cameras custom or home made or were they available commercially?

If you were a photographer in the mid 19th century you'd most likely buy a prefab lens assembly and make the box yourself (not that complicated, as most cameras then didn't have shutters), or have one made to your specification. After the Civil War, American Optical, Scovill and the Henry Clay Co. were among the commercial makers of big view and box cameras. A nice selection here.

Perspective

Is anyone fooled by the perspective here? It doesn't look like that ledge is tall enough for the train to look as tiny as it does!

Unsteady footing

One slip, and goodbye large format camera, tripod and photographer!

Impressive

I used to shoot a lot of landscapes in large format (4x5) before the digital age hit photography. I can identify with these gents lugging all that equipment around but not to the extent they did. I cannot imagine 18x22 in the field. My hat's off to them. That's an extremely hard thing to do.

Big Cameras

Were those "Mammoth Plate" cameras custom or home made or were they available commercially?

 
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Shorpy.com | History in HD is a vintage photo blog featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1950s. The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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