Thursday, March 18, 2010

Caring for Photographic Negatives

By: John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections
This blog was inspired by a wonderful friend of the museum who called me last week to ask me about caring for photographic negatives. There are probably fewer negatives out there than there was only a few years ago, thanks in part to advances in digital technology, but for many of us, myself included, we have negatives lying around the house that we’ve had for many years.

So how do you care for those negatives when you get them home? What if you’re cleaning out granny’s attic and find boxes and boxes of old negatives? And what’s the weird smell? Well, hopefully this will help explain some of the mystery behind negatives.

Caring for them is pretty easy actually. If they’re in strips, you can buy negative sleeves in a variety of sizes from online retailers like Light Impressions. You can even buy them with holes punched in the sides to load them into binders. But you have to keep in mind that you need something inert, meaning that it doesn’t react to temperature and humidity and doesn’t throw off gases which could harm your film. Make sure you’re getting protectors that are made of polyethylene or polypropylene. Both are archivally safe, inert plastics that nearly every museum uses in one way or another.

If you find negatives in an attic or in a basement, chances are they’ll have some condition issues, especially if it’s a damp or extremely warm environment. In some cases, the negatives might be too far gone to save, but if you’re lucky you can save them. First, get them to a stable environment. Usually the main floor of a house is the best place since the temperature and humidity are more or less stable. Carefully separate them and put them into the protectors, but use caution, over time they may have fused and if you pull too hard, you’re likely to ruin them. You may even want to consider scanning them like we do at the museum. We’ll scan at a high resolution once and then make sure the negative is preserved and housed safely, and only re-scanned it if it’s absolutely necessary or if better scanning technology emerges.

And finally, you’ve found a box of negatives and when you open it up, it smells like vinegar. Congratulations, you’ve just found negatives made from cellulose nitrate. There’s a lot of science behind why cellulose nitrate film smells like vinegar, but it’s bad. Very bad. If you smell vinegar, that means the film is staring to break down. Eventually it’ll completely degrade so your best bet is to scan the film at the highest resolution you can before it disintegrates or consult a conservator or film conservation company and have the negative transferred to a new film stock. The National Film Preservation Foundation can provide more information on this method, which is what they recommend.

Next time I’ll talk about the Smith-Telfer Photographic Collection which the New York State Historical Association is fortunate to have been given. You may have never seen these types of negatives before either. Think negatives on glass.

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