Fairfax donates 'valuable' historical images

In an age when photographs are shot, finessed and circulated within seconds, Australia's rarest collection of photojournalism is a riveting insight into another time.

Not just into the events of that time - Depression-era dole queues, the first Anzac Day march, bustling life on Sydney's streets - but also into the time-consuming process of glass plate photography that was common a century ago.

More than 13,000 glass negatives forming the Fairfax Archives Glass Plate Collection were donated to the National Library of Australia yesterday.

The photographs, taken by Fairfax photographers between 1908 and the mid-1930s, will be restored and put into digital form in a partnership between Fairfax Media, the National Library and the Australian government's National Cultural Heritage Foundation, which contributed $425,000.

The library's director-general, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, said the collection was particularly significant for Australians' understanding of the early 20th century.

"These images are special because they provide a complete archive of photojournalism during the era ... there is no comparable newspaper photo archives," Ms Schwirtlich said.

Chris Berry, the director of information services at Fairfax Media who has led the project over the past three years, said the goal was to preserve the images for all Australians.

"A lot of the stories are familiar ones, but the vivid nature of the glass plates brings them to life," Mr Berry said.

"In the chase for tomorrow's news, sometimes the history and cultural value of things is not always apparent."

Glass plate images are produced by applying a light-sensitive emulsion of silver salts to a dry gelatin plate. Used by NASA until the late 1990s and still used by some photographers today, glass plate photography produces better quality images than film, as the stable plates are less likely to bend or distort.

The glass plate negatives have been exceptionally well-preserved over the years but Mr Berry said the cataloguing process would provide an opportunity to properly appreciate the images within the collection.

"We have never had a complete record of this collection," he said, "There will most likely be some new discoveries."

The collection is soon to be packaged and transferred to the Library in Canberra, where it will be carefully examined and cleaned by art specialists. The negatives will then be digitalised using a specialist scanner and catalogued chronologically for research purposes over the next 12 months.

‘‘If a picture paints a thousand words, then Fairfax Media has painted hundreds of thousand with this collection,’’ said Arts Minister Simon Crean about the collection.

‘‘The collection will become an invaluable resource for Australian researchers, historians and the Australian public’’.

The Fairfax Glass Plate Collection is expected to be available online from 2013.

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