Greenhouse made of glass negatives

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Greenhouse made of glass negatives

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.


4 thoughts on “Greenhouse made of glass negatives

  1. Peter Bengtson says:

    What you are missing is that the Brady negatives that were used had their silver reclaimed first. That was the primary reason that they were destroyed. Old negatives of that size with a heavy emulsion had a large silver content. Years ago I read an interview in a book about Brady where someone had tracked down the person who purchased the negatives to reclaim the silver and he said that after reclamation he sold the glass for windows and greenhouses. The glass at that point would have been clear, not as shown here.

  2. Douglas Wise says:

    I recently finished a pictorial history of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. They built a greenhouse on base out of cleaned X-ray plates. Here servicemembers injured in World War I got physical and occupational therapy by growing plants.

  3. willisnewton says:

    This story about Mathew Brady and the greenhouses is mentioned in Ken Burns’ PBS series THE CIVIL WAR in the last episode, episode 9 near the start. They seem to do that famous Ken Burns zoom into a photo of a greenhouse that contains such an image, but the photo is so wide and the resolution so indistinct that it is hard to say this confirms the story. I think it is a likely enough thing that it would have happened, however.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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