Working with Photographic Negatives

I have just finished processing almost 2500 photographic negatives and have come across some very interesting things. These negatives are part of the “Photographs and collected postcards series” (PEN 7), and consist of twenty-four albums of nitrate film negatives, two boxes of glass negatives and six negative index books.


Negative albums in the John Pendlebury Family Papers collection. Copyright: British School at Athens.


The negative albums, organised and kept by John and Hilda Pendlebury, were donated by their daughter, Joan Pendlebury, to the British School at Athens via the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1979. The camera mostly used to take these photos does not survive in the collection, but we have a hint at what it might have looked like from this photo taken of Mercy Money-Coutts using a similar camera. Although other cameras may also have been used since the negatives have different shapes and sizes: a square shape of 60 x 60 mm and a rectangular shape of 60 x 90 mm and 125 x 175 mm.


Hilda Pendlebury and Mercy Money-Coutts. [PEN 7/2/6/693]. Copyright: British School at Athens.

Processing the negatives has been slow and laborious and has involved removing them from the original containers and transferring them into archival grade negative holders as well as giving them an item code, necessary in the cataloguing and digitisation process. Most of the negatives were produced on nitrate cellulose film which is chemically unstable causing volatile deterioration. This film can also be very flammable and capable of sustaining combustion even in the absence of oxygen and underwater. Nitrate film has been the cause of many fires and resulted in innumerable losses of archival records.



While I was processing the negatives, I also had the opportunity to evaluate the conservation conditions for each with the use of a light table which provided an excellent view of their content. I identified some signs of nitrate film deterioration such as the change of clear film to shades of yellow and amber and the fading of the emulsion; the latter takes on a silvery appearance sometimes referred to as “mirroring”. Unfortunately, nitrate film decay is irreversible and autocatalytic. The best thing to do to preserve them, as we are doing in this case, is to take measures to prevent deterioration from continuing further. Before these negatives were stored in proper conditions, some of them started to self-destruct and resulted in the negatives fusing together.


Example of the “mirroring” effect on two of the negatives within the collection.
nigrate negatives destruction sample046
Example of some of the nitrate negatives which have self-destructed.


Now, the Pendlebury negative albums are stored under optimal conditions in the Father Edward Bader Photographic Archive Room at the BSA. This room provides a cool (18ºC) and dry (30-36% relative humidity) environment which is recommended for the preservation of photographic materials.

John Pendlebury appears to have organised these negative albums according to the geographical area associated with trips around Greece and other Mediterranean countries, including Egypt, Italy, Palestine, and Syria, as well as trips back home to England. Each of the negative albums contains an index listing the content of each envelope in each container. Many of the positive prints of these negatives can be found in other sections of the Pendlebury archive such as the travel logs and photographic albums.


Photographic negative [7/5/3/58/1] and positive print [2/2/4/66] of the Temple of Segesta. Copyright: British School at Athens.

The process of handling these negatives has been fascinating. They have the power, perhaps more than positive prints, to transport you to the place where they were taken almost 90 years ago, showing different landscapes, people and ways of life. It is also quite impressive to see how isolated many sites were at the time and reflect on how these have been transformed to become major tourist attractions in Greece today.

To finish this entry, I have selected a few of my favourite photographic negatives in the Pendlebury collection. I hope you like them as much as I do!


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