Negative/Positive

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The way we experience photographs today is very different from the way people experienced them 120 years ago.  We press the shutter on our digital cameras without concern; if the photograph doesn’t turn out it can easily be deleted.  We load photographs onto our computers, edit them on a screen, and share them online.  Our photographs stay in a digital world, existing as pixels rather than prints or plates.

 

It is easy to forget that the photograph can also be an object rather than just an image.  The photographs in the Marriott C. Morris Collection serve as a reminder of the simultaneous fragility and durability, tactility and “thing-ness” that photographs can have.
Marriott C. Morris, Old Swede’s Church Wilmington. From 6th St. Snow on Ground. 1883.

Marriott C. Morris, Old Swede’s Church Wilmington. From 6th St. Snow on Ground. 1883.

Many of the photographs in the Marriott C. Morris Collection come in the form of glass negatives.  The thin glass plates are all stored individually in acid-free sleeves and organized into boxes.  They must be handled with gloves so that fingerprints and oils from the skin do not damage the plates.  Unless they are held up to the light, the image on the plate is often difficult to discern in the hazy film of emulsion.  With the use of a lightbox, the image appears in negative form.  What we think should be dark is light and vice versa.  For example, in this image of Old Swede’s Church the snow on the roof and cemetery grounds appears black in the negative.  Similarly, the ghostly white tendrils in the negative become bare, black tree branches in the positive image.
Marriott C. Morris, Elliston P. Morris, ca. 1890.

Marriott C. Morris, Elliston P. Morris, ca. 1890.

The negatives of people are especially arresting, their faces emerging like ghosts from the lightbox.  While haunting, these negatives hide details about the sitter that only emerge when the positive image is created.  Marriott C. Morris’ father Elliston P. Morris’ kind eyes are obscured in the negative version of his portrait but gaze out warmly from the positive image.

Marriott C. Morris, detail on negative of Elliston P. Morris, ca. 1890.

Marriott C. Morris, detail on negative of Elliston P. Morris, ca. 1890.

Negatives hide things but also reveal them.  For example, in the negative view of Morris’ portrait the emulsion has been burnished around the face and small scratches made to emphasize areas of light and create shadow.  This shows Marriott C. Morris’ hand not only in taking the photograph, but also the refinement of the negative, the physical act of dragging metal across glass.  The process of digitizing the Marriott C. Morris Collection is a very important one.  However, we must not forget the original form of these photographs as glass negatives, both mystery and revelation, both object and image.

 

Alison Van Denend
Assistant Project Manager

 

The Marriott C. Morris Photograph Collection
The Library Company of Philadelphia
1314 Locust St., Philadelphia, PA 19107
TEL 215-546-3181 FAX 215-546-5167
http://www.librarycompany.org
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