|Columbia, c. 1910|
It happens that glass-plate negatives survive the risk of cracking and breaking, that chemicals composing the lights and darks are kept stable, that prints are made and preserved, that scans are created and published – all these eventualities are possible, but when they happen together it still seems unlikely.
Varsity crew at Cornell in 1911 and again in 1912, with mostly the same faces aging by one small increment. Other years with other faces were lost or never made. Today, photographic technology is no longer capable of rendering these same tender silvers and sables. True, an artist like Sally Mann can revive glass-plate processes – yet her example only proves the rule that what survives from the past survives mostly by accident and might much more likely have perished.
At the turn of the 20th century people had only learned recently to believe in the integrity of photographic facts. That surely is one reason these long-preserved facts are infinitely more vivid than present-day photographic facts.