Our digitisation assistant, Rosie Dyson, reports on digitising a fascinating collection of glass plate and cellulose nitrate negatives.

The Godfrey Bingley Collection donated to the University in 1913 comprises of the life’s work of the photographer and Victorian industrialist Godfrey Bingley. Over 10,000 glass plate and cellulose nitrate negatives make up this effervescent collection, plus notebooks detailing the place and date of many of the images.  It serves as a comprehensive social and geological history of the UK and further afield. The majority of the collection focuses on images of England, particularly his native county of Yorkshire, however Bingley also captured images when visiting various other countries from Mexico to Switzerland.

Over the last few months work has taken place to digitise and catalogue the remaining Bingley negatives. 2,126 glass plate and cellulose nitrate negatives have been sorted, counted, labelled, catalogued, photographed and made available on our online catalogue. Location records have also been updated and item specific metadata added to records. This work will aid retrievals and discoverability, aiming to open up the collection to more researchers.

Recent engagements with the collection include the research of Dr Rebecca Jarman who focuses particularly on Bingley’s time in Latin America as described in her podcast, and artist Michael C. Coldwell who recreates Bingley’s images, referencing the theory of “hauntology”.

Clockwise from top left: MS 1788/91/47 Venice, MS 1788/50/10 Whitby, MS 1788/58/2 London, MS 1788/70/103 Arosa, Switzerland. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Working with the Bingley Collection involves a great deal of concentration to ensure each negative is captured and catalogued accurately. Manual dexterity is also of utmost importance as glass plate negatives are incredibly fragile. Cellulose nitrate negatives are made from film which can be hazardous. They are capable of off-gassing therefore during digitisation gloves must be worn and good ventilation is essential.

In order to photograph, the negative is placed on a lightbox to backlight the item ready for capture using a Phase One camera with macro lens to ensure a high level of detail. Each image adheres to industry imaging standards thanks to a colour passport which measures consistency between images, maintaining colour control and neutralising the effects of artificial light on the finished image.

Whereas glass plate negatives are flat and behave relatively well when photographed on a lightbox, cellulose nitrate negatives are susceptible to cockling, therefore where necessary a plate of bespoke glass with feet is placed over the slide on the lightbox to gently flatten it without applying pressure.  Otherwise it would be difficult for the camera to focus on the item and produce a legible image. It has been enjoyable to see the collection come to life and to provide researchers with more detail than the naked eye can see when consulting the original.

Closeup of Bingley negatives in box. Image credit Leeds University Library.