The Australian Museum photographic collections consist of images in several formats such as glass plate negatives, lantern slides, large format black and white negatives, roll film, colour negatives, 35mm and 120mm slides and medium and large format transparencies.

The technology of early photography employed glass plates to hold the emulsion which reacted to the interplay of light to record an image.

However glass was heavy and fragile and the results uneven and more portable camera equipment necessitated that the base material holding the light sensitive emulsion, evolved to a flexible stock of cellulose nitrate, then cellulose acetate and then finally polyester based film stock. Photographers moved from single load negatives to roll film, first in black and white and then once commercially readily available in 1960's colour was embraced. In the 1950s with the advent of Kodak’s popular amateur medium of slide film and slide projectors, slide transparencies became a popular way to record many scientific field trips. Today of course most photos are captured digitally.

The photography collections at the Museum although now digitised and accessible as digital files are still referred to and categorised by their original film stock technology.

The notable subgroups of the Australian Museums Photographic archives are:

  • Glass plate negatives
  • Glass lantern slides
  • Black and white roll film (M series)
  • Colour negatives collection (CN series)

Timeline of photographic film stock technology

  • Glass plates

    There were two types of glass plate negatives - Collodion wet plate glass plate negatives the invention of which is credited to William Scott Archer in 1851. The wet plate process involved the photographic emulsion (a syrupy solution of cotton and light sensitive iodine or bromide) coated wet on glass plates just prior to exposure. Gelatin dry plate negative developed by Dr Richard L Maddox in 1871 had an emulsion of silver salts in gelatin which could be mass produced and stored for months prior to use.

  • Cellulose nitrate

    Cellulose nitrate film introduced around 1890 was used for various formats, including motion picture film, still film and even microfilm. It was notoriously highly flammable especially as the nitric acid off gassed from the film stock base and deteriorated. It was gradually replaced by safer alternatives.

  • Cellulose acetate

    Cellulose acetate, also known as safety film, was introduced in the early 20th century as a safe film base replacement for the unstable and highly flammable nitrate film. Cellulose diacetate film was first employed commercially for photographic film in 1909. Cellulose acetate film however was prone to deterioration often referred to as vinegar syndrome. As the acetic acid off-gasses, the acetate base deteriorates and can eventually shrink, warp and become too brittle to use.

  • Polyester Film

    Polyester film (polyethene terephthalalte) has been most commonly used for photography since 1955. As a film base it is not as hazardous as cellulose nitrate film and is far more stable than cellulose acetate film.

  • Digital

    Digital photography began in 1951 when the first digital signals were able to be saved to magnetic video tape. Then in 1957 the first digital image was produced through a computer by Russell Kirsch. It wasn’t until 1975 however that the first digital camera was produced by Steven Sasson an engineer with Eastman Kodak. Digital cameras and digital photography has revolutionised the field making high quality photography accessible on a wide consumer level. The switch to digital photography at the Australian Museum occurred in 2004.

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Dive into the Australian Museum photographic collections and learn about the Museum's rich history through rarely seen photos.

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