Better than a Garage Sale!!!!! (And serious advice needed)

Discussion in 'B&W: Film, Paper, Chemistry' started by chuck94022, Jun 12, 2005.

  1. chuck94022

    chuck94022 Subscriber

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    I had to sit down when this happened today.

    My late grandfather was an artist in many dimensions - he painted, he built exquisite ship models from scratch, he designed and created furniture, did scupture - I could go on and on. His work is in museums and some private collections. (I'm not trying to brag, please, just setting context.)

    He was also a photographer, professionally in the navy, and then later in life, as a part of his art.

    I am on vacation and visiting with my mother (his daughter). While casually discussing photography, she said she had some "old film" she "wanted me to develop".

    Curious, I followed her to her room, as I commented on the life expectancy of old undeveloped film, then asked her if the film had been protected from light.

    She said yes, until recently - she pulled it out to look at it, and wanted to show the film to me. Crestfallen, I followed her to her room, preparing to deliver the bad news.

    Imagine my shock when she pulled out packages of old black and white negatives, already developed thank God, taken by my grandfather many, many years ago. Landscapes, seascapes, and portraits, mostly 4x5's and what appear to be something like 2x3's, or perhaps 6x9's cut from the roll.

    All of them appear to be printable, even though the storage has been lousy - stacks of them crammed into envelopes.

    My first concern is not preservation, actually. They've survived this long, they will survive until I get them into a better set of sleeves.

    Some of them are from my mother's childhood - she is in her 70's. I wonder if some of them are not safety film, and I should be concerned about traveling with them on an airliner. This is my main question for the group.

    Once I get them home and proof printed, I'll share some of what I find with APUG. I am just tickled pink that I happened to have reconstructed my darkroom (some of the pieces of which come from my grandfather's darkroom) and can print some of his old, but very interesting, negatives.

    I am such a happy camper!

    ps: It doesn't stop there. Before this, she had previously asked if she had given me my grandfather's old camera. What camera, I asked? She said, you know, a big one, you look down through it. (I'm thinking Hasselblad, here I come!). But no, I don't have it, and I told her so. She said, oh, perhaps I gave it to your brother (who isn't currently doing photography). She's going to ask. I have no idea what this camera will prove to be, but it is old, and I have seen some of it's photographs, which are excellent.
     
  2. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    If the edges of the film say "Safety Film," you don't have to worry about it blowing up. If they don't, then it's harder to say, but there are other ways of identifying nitrocellulose based film. See if you can look up Kent Thompson (whose last name I'm probably misspelling--he usually goes by DKT). He knows about this sort of thing and posts occasionally on APUG, more often on the LF forum and photo.net.
     
  3. David H. Bebbington

    David H. Bebbington Inactive

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    Interesting question (and interesting material!). I tried to research this briefly (two editions of Ilford Manual of Photography from 1937 and 1942), both say that both nitrate and safety bases were used for flat film before WWII. A flame test with a scrap of film or damaged negative would give you an answer! I think if it was me, and provided that the negatives are not decomposed and oozing plasticizer, I would take them on the plane but try to seal them in some kind of metal box (biscuit tin, etc.).
     
  4. gnashings

    gnashings Inactive

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    I hope you don't mind me posting this reply, since it offers no advice at all - I just wanted to thank you for sharing this great story with us. Maybe I am missing the point, but I enjoy this part of my hobby as much as the picture taking itself! Best of luck and hope to see the results!

    Peter.
     
  5. Donald Qualls

    Donald Qualls Member

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    In today's environment, I would definitely recommend against trying to take nitrate negatives on a commercial flight (and you should probably assume that unidentified negatives made before 1960 might include some nitrate stock). There is a very strong likelihood that doing so will wind up with you spending many hours explaining the chemistry of historical film to Federal authorities (after a few intimate moments with a rubber-gloved fellow named Bubba). The same equipment that (in theory) detects explosives intended to bring down an airliner will also detect deterioration products of celluloid, even if the film shows no visible sign of deterioration to you and me. Carry on is likely to be better than checked bag, however; you can let the negatives go through the x-ray without worry, and that may be all that's required. I'd suggest calling ahead and explaining the situation to the airport authorities to avoid surprises, and doing so in plenty of time to arrange alternate shipment.

    Shipping USPS may be no better -- there's actually some possibility your package might be detonated by a bomb squad if the postal service detects nitrates, even if it's clearly marked as photographic negatives (not very likely, but it might depend on what if anything they can make out on an x-ray). It might also be soaked in water or oil in an attempt to neutralize the "explosives", though bomb squads don't usually bother with such half-measures any more.

    UPS is right out -- with their standing hazmat policies, if they learn you're trying to ship anything ending with "nitrate" they'll reject the shipment and might call the authorities, and never mind what the stuff actually is (and that goes double if they detect "explosives" in a package after you've left the counter). FedEx may be your best bet, or a smaller courier service able to actually accept a verbal explanation of what they're handling.
     
  6. joeyk49

    joeyk49 Member

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    Chuck:

    IMHO, you've struck it rich! No matter what the unidentified camera turns out to be, those negs are a treasure trove. Print away!

    I've been seeking out old negs from my family tree, but alas, the best that I've come up with so far is a tin full of old prints (Which I've been scanning one little batch at a time.).
     
  7. Nathan Smith

    Nathan Smith Member

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    Sounds like maybe a Graflex reflex perhaps? I always thought they were cool, and J&C carries film for any size that it might come in, I think.

    Nathan
     
  8. DKT

    DKT Member

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    Hey Chuck-that sounds like a nice collection, if they're in good shape, you'll have some fun working with them. As I see it--I'm not expert, just a guy working in a museum photo dept--you have one option here if you plan on trying to bring them back. You need to do what you can to identify the bases, and if they are nitrate you need to be upfront about it and contact the airliner and explain to them that you need to ship some hazardous, flammable material. Think of it like packing your bags with some gasoline or something like that. You wouldn't feel comfortable knowing there was bag with a can of gasoline in the hold of the plane, would you?

    Nitrate self combusts when the conditions are just right--it seems to mostly happen with long rolls of motion picture film, or large sheets of cut film. It has to do with the surface area and the amount of material. The base offgasses as it ages--as does safety film for that matter (acetate)--but if the byproducts cannot breathe and escape the containers or enclosure they're stored in, then the stuff becomes more problematic. If the temperatures get high enough, and are sustained for a long enoygh time--then it can combust.

    It's considered a hazardous material by many municipalities, and there are fire codes and the like for it's storage and disposal. It can't be smothered easily and it can burn underwater even. It gives off a noxious gas when it burns, so it's generally, well, nasty. However everyone has it--every archive has it stored in some special room, to the best of their abilities. They try to get it into explosion proof vaults offsite or they try to dupe the negs and then destroy them if they're a hazard or if they lack the funds to do otherwise.

    So--my advice would be to find the nearest public archive and see if they have staff who can help you positively ID the negs and offer some advice on packing and shipping them. There are a few lab tests using some equally nasty chemicals, and there's a test involving polarized light as well. The easiest way to try to do a visual test or some semi-destructive tests, or a burn test of a snip.

    There are problems with these though--chances are you have an assortment of bases. Unless all the negs are the same, then you can't easily sort them out. You can use a timeline of film manufacture, but there are no concrete records for the manufacturers.

    Anything before 1955, that doesn't say "Safety" on it someplace is suspect. It is also possible to have dupe negs made onto nitrate. both nitrate and acetate bases look similar at first, but then as they begin to deteriorate and progressively get worse, they take different paths. Ultimately, nitrate turns to dust. Acetate just shrivels like a potato chip. More benign, but useless as a negative.

    The pro sheet films started to get phased out of nitrate in the 30s, the rollfilms and packfilms (sheet) were made on it up to the cutoff of 1955. Pack film was one of the last holdouts. You can sort of use film size and type as a guide, but mostly with Kodak products, as they kept the most accurate records. There are surveys of collections worldwide now, and I have some of these reports at work that I got as handouts at conferences (I'll be happy to share if possible, to help)--but there is no real definitive proof, I'm afraid. It would take someone trained in the field as a conservator, or a certified archivist perhaps to make a real concrete asessment.

    One easy test, is to take a neg and go into the edge, rebate area if possible and bend a corner. Nitrate gets brittle, and will often break off if folded over. If you burn it--okay, be careful. Don't blame me if you burn your hous down or you scorch your eyebrows off or something worse...

    GO OUTSIDE. get some needlenose pliers and take a small snip off a neg. Take a bucket of water or something to put it out in if possible. Nitrate will burn straight down like a fuse. Very fast--yellow flame. Don't breathe it either--it's irritating stuff. Don't handle it without gloves, even good negs either. It causes skin irritation with some people. Acetate film will only burn when a flame is held to it.

    Nitrate though, is like a fuse....zip! it goes fast...


    I can dig this stuff out if you want--if you can sort of narrow down the manufacturers, and general time periods. Use whatever is in the image--get a loupe out and look for dates on newspapers and the like. It's a detective story really.

    So--what I would do would be to find an archivist, preservation manager, or ideally a conservator. Call if you have to--ask for advice on transporting possible nitrate film and what the shipping regulations are.

    btw--there's a third base material, mostly used in sheet films, but also in some rolls. Polyester--best there is and used today along with some form of acetate. Kodak calls there version "estar", dupong I think was "cronar", agfa had a similar moniker whose name escapes me now...

    Hope this helps--

    DKT, aka correct id'd by David Goldfarb....
     
  9. colrehogan

    colrehogan Member

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    What a neat story. Hope you get some nice prints!
     
  10. chuck94022

    chuck94022 Subscriber

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    Thanks DKT. This is very helpful.

    A couple of the negatives have turned blue, and one has turned red. They are all B&W images. What is likely to have caused this color?

    Most of them have some color in the base - a pinkish, or tan color. Also, a number of the 4x5's appear to be polaroids - there is evidence of paper along the edges, like I get on my polaroid negatives.


    -chuck
     
  11. chuck94022

    chuck94022 Subscriber

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    Well, I just snipped a bit of the red one (about 1/16" along the width of the film on one end - not noticeable). It burned like a fuse, very fast. I guess the red one is definitely nitrocellulose.

    The fact that I have one means I must have a number of them. I will definitely be careful and contact the airlines for more information.

    -chuck
     
  12. chuck94022

    chuck94022 Subscriber

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    I stand corrected on the 4x5 negs with the paper on the ends. It says in very small print one one end, "Kodak Safety Film". So it is some sort of Kodak 4x5 film. Did they have a quick loader solution back then? These particular ones may be from the 50's, but I'm guessing.

    -chuck
     
  13. chuck94022

    chuck94022 Subscriber

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    As a control, I decided to snip the end off one of the negs clearly marked "Safety Film". That strip too burned all the way down, but not as voraciously as the red one. And I did have to light it twice. So it looks like old safety film will burn, and sustain itself, but not with the vigor of what I presume is nitrocellulose, which burned and sizzled "like a fuse" right down to the end. The differences are qualitative, rather than a clear burn/does not burn indication.

    -chuck
     
  14. DKT

    DKT Member

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    yeah, they had film packs back then. I think they discontinued them in the mid to late 60s, maybe some old timers can help me out here? the film packs were like the polaroid film packs now, in a similar way, just not instant film. so, you're probably seeing some of the leftover paper interleaving material that was a carrier of sorts for the film. In any case, if it says Safety, then you're in the clear on those sheets.

    As for the colors? Well--they can change into some weird colors as the deteriorate. the nitrate goes into mostly a yellow, then amber type color. it also silvers out a bit and takes on a mirror like look in a way. the emulsion can get soft, and sticky. negs can stick together and get all gummed up--you'll never get them apart. It will also smell. The nitrate is like smelly socks or something--I can't describe it. It's different than acetate, which smells like vinegar, hence the term "vinegar syndrome". I've opened up boxes and file cabinets full of these negs before, and been about knocked down to the floor from the odor. It's nauseating and gives you a headache and irritates your eyes and nasal membranes etc. You won't forget it....

    Acetate though--it turns that red and blue color and begins to sorta shrink up. It can lose like 10% of it's size over time, and so the base shrivels up and the emulsion is lying on top, and gets wrinkled, or it tries to separate and bubbles up, or forms these spkes of sorts through the film.


    both of the bases can show similar signs though--they can both turn these colors and curl up, or become brittle and fall apart--that's why I mean it's like a detective story in a way, trying to ID them correctly.

    I'll get back later on--KT
     
  15. chuck94022

    chuck94022 Subscriber

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    If these negs are on the verge of curling up and disintegrating, what is the best strategy for preserving the images? Should any commercial shop be able to duplicate the negatives? And at this stage, what is the best storage strategy? If the emulsion is going to get gummy, it doesn't sound like my normal Print File negative holders are the right choice. Basically, I'd like to get new copies of the negatives, and keep the originals as long as feasible.

    I'm dubious of drum scanning them at this stage, if they are delicate. And I'm not sure my little flatbed will capture the images well enough.

    -chuck
     
  16. DKT

    DKT Member

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    hey--well, there are a couple of ways to approach them. There's no reason to panic if they look okay and you think you can print them. They need to be monitored a bit and you need to at least separate them from your other negs and prints. The nitrate will harm the others, so it needs to be stored someplace else.

    You don't want to seal them up in any way-this rules out plastic sleeves, or metal boxes or the like. Best paper materials would be the microchamber type stuff, that has the zeolite absorbant qualities and then it has mylar type barriers in it as well.It would absorb the offgassing...

    they both need to be kept cool and dry. if you seal them up--they tend to "stew in their juices"as they say. the nitrate is just dangerous, though, this way, but if it makes you feel any better, I have hundreds of sheets of my own, in a similar predicament of inherited family stuff. At work, they treat it with a ten foot pole, and isolate the stuff in a special room....

    I worry a bit...but I have duped some of them onto sheet film, and printed a good many as well. With care, someone should be able to do this, but if they're beginning to deteriorate, they need to be very careful.

    There's a tipping point of sorts, where the deterioration snowballs and goes downhill fast. The trick is to do it before that point, and then wait it out. The acetate--if it shrinks--is toast. It's an expensive salvage job, to get the emulsion off the base. It has to be stripped off and floated onto a new base, our archives has done this, but it's really not practical. they say it costs about 100 bucks a negative. acetate is easier than nitrate, just lower the tgemp & rh.

    the s.o.p. then has been to try to slow it down--the decay--by controlling the room temps and relative humidity. then to try to duplicate them either with film or by shooting copy negs of prints. Then try to store them and wait it out. A longstanding practice though, has been to dupe and then destroy. In this case, the nitrate is treated as a hazardous material.

    More later if you want--gotta split--KT
     
  17. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    The base used for some of the earliest films was indeed, nitrocellulose. It was developed, long ago, as an entry into a contest designed to find a material that could be substituted for elephant ivory in the production of billiard balls. It won.

    Nitrocellulose is produced, essentially, from the action of Nitric acid on Cellulose... possibly wood fibers.. or?
    We are familiar with it under different identities: "Cellophane", "Celluloid" and interestingly enough, "Smokeless (Gun)powder" - containing other "stuff" to modify burning characteristics.

    There is, as with all plastics, a "Flame Test" for identification: Light a strip with an ordinary match. Nitrocellulose will burn evenly with a "clear", yellow flame. It will not explode unless contained. It will be self-sustaining, with very little "smoldering", very little smoke, and very little ash. The burning rate reminds me, somewhat, of ordinary paper. It is quite stable.

    Nitrocellulose caused the destruction of quite a few movie houses, in the early days. It was not too healthy a situation to have a considerable amount of the stuff in close proximity to the Carbon Arc Lamps used in the early projectors.

    With thanks to the University of Mass. at Lowell, and their basic "Plastics Engineering Classes".
     
  18. chuck94022

    chuck94022 Subscriber

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    KT, since I'm on vacation (in Beaufort, North Carolina, for anyone who happens to be nearby) and don't have suitable materials handy, should I keep them just separated and out in the air until I leave (on Sunday), or for this short period would plastic (archival) sleeves be OK? Or should I stack them and separate them with, say, tissue paper, until I get them somewhere where I can deal with them?

    Thanks a bunch, this is really turning out to be very helpful stuff!

    -chuck
     
  19. DKT

    DKT Member

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    Hey Chuck--I didn't realize you were so close...I work for the NC Museum of History in the state capitol. One of our museums is down there in Beaufort--the Maritime Museum. I haven't had a whole lot of dealings with them other than working with some blackbeard artifacts and the like for an exhbit we did a few years ago, but it's a cool museum if you like wooden boats.

    Okay--sure, yeah you can leave them in plastic for awhile, it's not like they're going to fall apart overnight. I don't know if this is a great idea if they're nitrate and you plan to travel though. When my own relatives unloaded a few hundred nitrate negs on me--I was in a similar position, out of town, and what I did was to go to an office supply store and bought a big box of cotton envelopes. I sealed these up, and cut them in half--used them as the poor man's paper sleeve....

    Actually, I still have some store like this, I hate to admit. I took one of those pH pens you get from Light Impressions, or from University Products etc, and I checked the pH of the paper and it was neutral. There's adhesive in the envelopes that's probably not good, but the negs aren't great either...The good stuff that I was interested in, I set these aside and bought some buffered flip top boxes to store them in. I used LI Apollo 4x5 envelopes for each neg (buffered). This was before the Microchamber stuff became popular--I can't really afford to switch everything out. I don't really use them that much either.

    fwiw--I work for the division of museums, that's within the agency that also runs the archives. In Manteo, there's the Outer Banks History Center. You could try to see if they offer any sort of patron assistance, if you still have time. I can't guarantee anything, since I don't work in that part of the department. If the images are of the NC coast, or from any part of the state for that matter, I know the archives would be interested in seeing them. I do a lot of work for the Museum of the Albemarle, up in Elizabeth City actually. They actively collect images of the outer banks as well as the Albemarle Sound and that part of the state. Oh well, that's my pitch. Here are some links.


    http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/archives/OBHC/default.htm

    this is the archive:

    http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/

    there's a link on their site to ours...

    anyways, hope you enjoyed your stay here in NC, good luck with the negs and have a safe trip back.

    KT

    My opinions only, not my employers.
     
  20. chuck94022

    chuck94022 Subscriber

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    What a coincidence, KT. My grandfather has some of his work in the Maritime Museum here in Beaufort. In fact, they have a model shop named in his honor: the John S. MacCormack model shop. He was known for his ship models. He used to have some of his scrimshaw on display as well, but that has since been taken down. His paintings, sculpture, furniture, and wood carvings are in private collections. We visit the Maritime Museum every time we come to Beaufort (we have a vacation home here, on Front Street).


    I've contacted a local commercial photographer, Scott Taylor (who does wonderful coastal images), and if he has time he's going to help by doing some proofs for me.

    The envelope idea is great - I'll pick some up. Thanks!

    -chuck
     
  21. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    hey ed -

    i can't imagine hitting a pool ball made out of collodion! talk about a explosive game of pool - maybe it was only the 8-ball :smile:

    i documented a nitrocelulose plant at the picatinny arsenal in dover new jersey ... it (collodion/nitrocellulose) was used as a propellant charge in missles, and one of the "bases" in a double base ordnance, with the other one being nitroglycerine. the way they made it ( at the arsenal ) was by taking linens and soaking them in a nitrate solution, then they would remove the cloth from the vats, and put them in another vat containing alcohol ( to rid of the water from the nitrate solution ) and i think they would ddissolveit in ether. for propellant charge the thick clear collodion was extruded (noodled) and carefully cut into pellets, and then packed into the ordnance.

    they also used collodion in wartime as a covering for wound after surgery. it made a clear, tough, protective layer ( new-skin at your local drug store is the same sort of stuff ) ... all i have to say is that it must have hurt like a &*&^% - good think there was booze, ether and a heavy mallet handy :smile:

    i used to get jars of it from my local pharmacy and make my own cellophane --- if the ether that was given off as the liquid converted to a solid didn't make you woozy, if you the stuff on your fingers it would burn like mad. not to mention i always shook in my boots when i carefully opened a partially filled bottle of collodion! for a while there i could have been a safe-cracker - no finger prints :smile:
     
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  22. DKT

    DKT Member

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    Hey--wow, small world...well, look I mean it when it comes to the negatives. If there are pictures of NC, and your family is from the state, I know people who would be interested in seeing them. It sounds like with the camera as well, you have quite a collection. Anyways, if you ever want to show them off, let me know.

    Good luck again--if you want to email me direct:

    kent.thompson@ncmail.net

    KT