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An old friend of mine, photographer Billy Baque, once told me of a rumor about gardeners in the early 20th century reusing unwanted glass plate negatives to build greenhouses. This idea–a sunlit glass room full of growing plants, dappled with the accidental shadows of unwanted memories–is to me almost too beautiful to explain.

So I tried to track it down in the tubes, and discovered that the story is apocryphal, likely originating in the tale of American Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, who is rightly famous for being one of the first journalists to bring images of the true horror of modern warfare into the homes of the taxpayers who fund it. During reconstruction, however, Brady’s graphic images of “the late unpleasantness” were decidedly unwelcome–so much so, the story goes, that he eventually sold the negatives to gardeners who needed cheap glass for their greenhouses.

I have found no online evidence of the existence of any such period greenhouses. However, in the summer of 2003, collage artist and assistant professor Michael Oatman, together with a class of architecture students at Rensselaer Polytechnic, undertook the construction of the greenhouse shown above. It incorporates about 2500 glass negatives culled from a database of more than 15,000 criminal mug shots from the turn of the 20th century. I have no word on the fate of the work, titled “Conservatory,” so I can’t say if it’s still possible to view it. If anyone knows, do please drop me a comment below.

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