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  1. #1
    chuck94022's Avatar
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    Better than a Garage Sale!!!!! (And serious advice needed)

    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. #2
    David A. Goldfarb's Avatar
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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.
    flickr--http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidagoldfarb/
    Photography (not as up to date as the flickr site)--http://www.davidagoldfarb.com/photo
    Academic (Slavic and Comparative Literature)--http://www.davidagoldfarb.com

  3. #3
    David H. Bebbington's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by chuck94022
    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.
    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. #4
    gnashings's Avatar
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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. #5
    Donald Qualls's Avatar
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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.
    Photography has always fascinated me -- as a child, simply for the magic of capturing an image onto glossy paper with a little box, but as an adult because of the unique juxtaposition of science and art -- the physics of optics, the mechanics of the camera, the chemistry of film and developer, alongside the art in seeing, composing, exposing, processing and printing.

  6. #6
    joeyk49's Avatar
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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. #7

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    Quote Originally Posted by chuck94022
    ... a big one, you look down through it...
    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. #8
    DKT
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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. #9
    colrehogan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by gnashings
    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.
    What a neat story. Hope you get some nice prints!
    Diane

    Halak 41

  10. #10
    chuck94022's Avatar
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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

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