Saving old negatives

HAVE YOU EVER LOOKED into the face of the past? No this isn't the start to a Dickens novel, it's a thought I had in a secondhand camera shop late last year when I found a shelf with some boxes of glass negatives from the 1890s. Each piece of 5x4 inch glass held a moment in time from before even my grandparents were born, yet the subjects had once been living and breathing people. Who they were, where they lived, what names they were called I had no idea, but it didn't seem to matter. I just wanted to meet them.

So I bought the box and took it home where I have a Canoscan 9900f, a scanner able to digitise negatives. I use it for my Kodak No.3A project. I didn't clean the negatives as I was too excited to see who was on the glass. The results were startling. Each image was a beautifully captured portrait of men and women from the late 19th century.

That first box spurred me into a project I now call the Rescued Negative Project and while I still look for boxes of old glass slides, I have also saved film negatives from the 1900s to 1930s.

Many of the negatives are in a sorry state. Back in the day, pictures would be printed and framed and hung on a wall or put into an album, but the negatives ended up in a drawer or attic never to be viewed again until the owner dies and their belongings are cleared away.

If you come across any old negatives and you would like to find a home for them, please get in touch.

Gavin Parsons

That's where I come in

With a box or even a bag of negatives, I inspect them all (wearing cotton gloves) and sort them into categories:

  1. Exciting, get it on the scanner damn quick
  2. Interesting, but poor quality
  3. Looks OK, but either poor photography or uninteresting subject
  4. Poor exposure, too damaged, scan as last resort
  5. Don't bother

When sorting I have to remember, glass negatives were popular when photography was as hard a as scaling a mountain in winter wearing pyjamas and fluffy slippers. Even getting a picture was tricky, let alone a good picture. So photography was done by men and women with a bit of gumption and a can do attitude more than creativity. However, these moments of history are beautiful even if they are, by today's standards, fairly flat, rudimentary pictures.

Scanning them doesn't just involve me plonking the negative onto the scanner and hitting 'go'. Each one has its issues. Dirt, scratches, stains and chips are physical damage that can be dealt with to a certain extent. I use cotton buds, Isopropyl alcohol, an air puffer and lint free cloths to try and remove some of the grim and stains. Scratches and chips I can't do much about, but I like them as they give the finished pictures authenticity.

One thing I always do, is scan the negatives with poor exposure. A healthy exposure should exhibit plenty of midtones, but if a negative is too light or dark the picture can be awesome. I have found some of my favourite pictures this way. The guy on the motorbike is a case in point. That negative was almost transparent, but the image is lush.

I am planning on making a film about the negatives, so keep a look out for that. In the meantime, if you come across any old negatives and you would like to find a home for them, please get in touch.