As someone who deals almost exclusively with fragments of the past, a favourite past time of mine is to look for old photographic negatives and work on extracting the images. Some time last year, my dear friend Audrey kindly loaned me a collection of her father’s negatives from the ’20s for me to work on. The acetate based negatives were neatly stored in 100 individual sleeves of a pocket folder. Unfortunately many were badly damaged beyond repair, especially those permanently stuck to each other.
At the very end of the folder was an index with details of each negative, usually a record of what, when and where the photograph was taken, not unlike metadata stored in digital files today.
Upon inspection, it became clear that the negatives had been through many hands and stored in various conditions. Using a dry cloth, it was easy to wipe away the thin layer of dust and dirt that was stuck on the negative, but great care had to be taken with the emulsion itself. Even fine abrasions invisible to the naked eye would appear as fine lines on the photograph.
The photo above shows damage caused by negatives being in contact with one another, and remaining that way for a long time. In this case, although the folder had instructions to only store a single negative in each pocket, the original user had two, and sometimes more. Interestingly, while there is a distinct mark, the emulsion itself is undisturbed, which means the details of the image recorded remains intact.
This photo shows the effect of oil deposits from handling and fingerprints. I will need to experiment with less important negatives if at all these smudges could be removed. Initial attempts with various kinds of cleaning solutions (with alcohol of different dilutions) resulted in the emulsion itself being removed very easily. I will need to research on cleaning methods used in museums and archives.
I find it most enjoyable to put old negatives against the light and wonder if I am the first person to see this image since it was last stored away many decades ago. Here, four gentlemen are seen posing on the platform of the Kuala Lipis Railway Station in Pahang, sometime in the late ’20s or early ’30s.
Being a tangible medium, information recorded on negatives and slides can be accessed without the need of an intermediary such as computers, divers, software, interface, etc. In this case, I used an enlarger to produce a projection of the image on my easel, which was marked to fit the image on a 8″x10″ sheet of Ilford Fiber multi-grade matte paper.
It took numerous test strips to estimate the right exposure, which proved to be elusive until I started making working prints which included the entire image, instead of just a small section. The print above was made at steps of 2 seconds, and the fifth band from the bottom (10 seconds) proved a good starting point. There are of course many ways to determine the right exposure for any particular negative, some far more technical than others, but this is the simplest method I enjoy working with.
After many more tests to fine tune the timing, and the contrast with multi-grade filters, prints were made. The primary intention with these prints were to test the kind of information one could retrieve from a negative in this condition, and how dirt/smudges affected the image.
Based on the test strips, I decided to try pre-flashing the paper to bring the highlights down and produce a print with much lower contrast. I did consider if reducing the contrast would change the apparent atmosphere of the scene, which was obviously pictured on a bright sunny day. The print was obviously too dark, but interesting nonetheless to note the presence of clouds in the bright sky, which was not readily apparent in the earlier test.
A second print was then made without pre-flashing, which resulted in a brighter print, but the details on the man’s white suit was lost. By this time, I had a good enough reference print and was eager to move on to the next negative. A lot more work would have to be put into the print to get it right; a brief pre-flash at a reduced intensity, graded burns in the sky, left and right quarter etc. A fourth working print would have been the final one, but that wasn’t the intention of this exercise.
The second negative for the night was a photograph of the Ridzwaniah Mosque in Kuala Kangsar, Perak. It was built in 1915 by Sultan Idris Murshidul Azzam Shah and later demolished in 1982. This negative was in a much better condition, and visibly thinner than the previous one, which meant shorter exposure times and higher contrast.
Here’s how the projection looked like. The stains seen in the bottom half of the photograph was already embedded into the negative, and any aggressive attempt to remove them would have been too risky. In my opinion, it did not interfere with the viewer’s appreciation of the subject itself, and was therefore not a priority to be fixed. With or without the mark, the photograph remains that of a beautiful mosque that no longer exists.
The process of retrieving images from old negatives would be far easier, faster, and better if done digitally with a dedicated film scanner and some minor adjustments in post. Although it should be noted here that while scanning itself sounds easy, it takes a lot of work, and care to get the most of out of each negative.
I’ve realised that in order to get really good files worthy of being printed for archival purposes, without scanning artefacts like banding, there is no shortcut to a high-end film scanner with the right mounts and many hours of trial and error. But in most cases, especially for consumers who are only concerned with digitalising negatives from the family album, a simple film scanner will be sufficient.
A digital scan will provide an image with far more overall information, but it somehow lacks the intimate relationship that comes with analogue printmaking. Both digital and analog mediums are just that, mediums, but there is a very real and direct connection between the final result and every conscious decision that was made leading up to it. The lengthy, routine process of making it right, offers space and time to contemplate about the photograph and the life it has had, as if the process of making the print itself is a conversation between the intention of the photographer and you the printer. Some would dismiss it as sentimental, nostalgic bullshit, but really nothing beats the joy of seeing an image come to life in the developing tray, and for that brief moment, under the glow of the dim red light, there is only you and a world long gone.