Welcome to the Holtermann Collection Digitisation Project


The Journeys End

 At last, the final two wet plate glass negatives from the Holtermann Collection have been digitised. They are over a metre long (1.36m x 0.95m) and were made in 1875 from inside Holtermann's residence, known as "Holtermann's Tower" in St Leonards. The negatives display views of Sydney Harbour, Garden Island to Millers Point, from Lavender Bay. 

  These plates are the final and most challenging plates to be digitised from the World Heritage listed Holtermann Glass Plate Collection. It is comprised of around 3,500 wet glass plate negatives of varying sizes made by Holtermann's photographer's Charles Bayliss and Beaufoy Merlin over the period 1871-1876.   

  The digitisation process of this considerable collection began as an initiative of Imaging Services Manager, Scott Wajon in 2009. The Collection had been digitised previously as "copy negatives" Scott saw these and realised they had nothing like the detail that could be achieved with our current equipment. Thanks to Scott's perseverance and the successful fundraising coordinated through the Library’s Foundation, a dedicated team of talented people began digitising the whole  Holtermann negative collection  - starting from the smallest  and ending here,  with the digitisation of the largest historical wet plate negatives currently know to exist. The negatives have been digitised to reveal a spectacular level of detail and are available for viewing on the library's website. 

Holtermann Glass Plate Digitisation

 How Did We Do It?

 It was a challenge to digitise such enormous negatives. They took 3 days to shoot and much longer for preparation. It required the co-operation of a large multi skilled team, a combination of  some high end equipment and considerable ingenuity. The challenges of digitising these glass plates were many and varied, not least of all the potentially hazardous combination of size, age, unwieldiness and fragile emulsion.


Imaging Services Co-ordinator Bruce York and Senior Photographer Hamilton Churton took on the task of working out the technical details of how to digitise the glass plates to the required standards. After colluding with experts from various divisions in the Library, considerable preparation and research, a support structure was designed and built and a plan was made.


A small group that included Alan Davies the Library's curator of Photography and members of the conservation team wheeled the enormous wooden box into the Imaging studio. As the first plate was carefully removed from it's home, the nervous and excited team looked on. The plate was, much to everyone's relief successfully and deftly fitted snugly into it's custom built, rigid, vertical support. It was built this way because the sheer weight of the negative could have caused the glass to break had it been lain out horizontally. As with a standard negative, light was needed to bring the scene to life. Behind the negative a custom made light box with daylight balanced keno's was switched on illuminating the enormous negative and its incredibly detailed landscape of a very young Sydney Harbour.

 The 50 megapixel Hasselblad camera then had to be attached to a remote controlled custom built dolly system, the tracks were measured and set up a specific distance from the illuminated negative so that the camera could roll across from one side of it to the other, and then be elevated on the dolly to do the same again. Because of the sheer size and detail, the negative needed to be shot in multiple parts and stitched together in Photoshop. One of the biggest challenges of this was the precision needed to get the camera lined up perfectly for each shot so the final image file would be the highest standard possible. This job fell to Senior Photographer, Hamilton Churton and Coordinator Bruce York who had spent many hours prior to shooting, testing and making calculations.


 After all the camera attachments had been made, the overhead lights were switched off and all that could be seen was the glowing negative and the expression of concentration on the Hamilton's face bathed in light as he cautiously shot each segment, checking the results onscreen before moving on to the next shot. This process was painstakingly carried out for both negatives.


 Hamilton took the resulting digital files and successfully processed and stitched them together. In the final images, the amount of detail visible amazed even the people working most closely with the negatives. Below is one of the negatives,Sydney Harbour from the Holtermann residence, with a detail.



 You can find out more about this collection in Discover Collections.

 A number of people need a special mention for making this final stage of the project a success:

  • Imaging Services Team                
  • Conservation team                
  •  Fraser and Mark from Pod design for  building the support  structure and  moving the negative 
  •  Lester and Morgan from Black Bishop Films from  providing and controlling the dolly
  •  Susan Hunt,  from SLNSW Foundation,  who have supported the project from it's inception



The Last Box

The last box of 18x22 inch large glass plate negatives has been shot. Here is a short timelapse of me finishing them off. I still have the incredible 1.6 metre negative to shoot, but that will be another story.

Holtermann from State Library of New South Wales on Vimeo.

I have spent the last year getting familiar with the Holtermann collection, and my predecessor Lauren even longer. I have lived with the plates and through them journeyed across Victoria and NSW looking at a world, most of which is gone, but which has been captured in exquisite detail. I have been continually astonished by how much information can be coaxed out of the larger negatives due to the almost grainless wet colloidal process. I started the project knowing virtually nothing about Holtermann or the American and Australasian Photographic company. After viewing the work of its photographers Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss I have finished with upmost respect and even awe for the work they achieved.

This is the last plate I photographed from Box 83. I have included the negative and the positive for comparison, please note the bubbling on the emulsion, where emulsion has come away at the edges, the original retouching work on Holtermann and his companion's eyes and the parts of the sky which have been painted in. The reason the negative is reversed is that it has been photographed emulsion side up.





It is called Holtermann shooting party camp in bush.

I approached Alan Davies and he did some research on the contents of the image, he noted the waratah flowers poking out of the guns. It was the zoom that allowed us to see writing on one of the buggy's. It says "Mackaness North Shore," according to Alan the buggy probably belonged to James Mackaness. Mackaness was a freemason like Holtermann and was on Holtermann's election committee when he stood unsuccessfully for the seat of St Leonard's in 1874.


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Join our discussions about this exciting project to digitise 3,500 glass plate negatives documenting the 1870s gold rush era in New South Wales and Victoria.

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