The quiet death of a 93 year-old nitrate still negative

Still photo archiving beyond preservation

A recent discovery in the photo collections of one of our Hollywood studio clients has served as a startling reminder of the importance of what we at PRO-TEK are doing for that particular still photo archive.

As a part of our inventory pursuant to the digital scanning of the silent Metro collection, we came across an unidentified, actively deteriorating, 8×10” nitrate negative of what could only be recognized as a small boy perhaps sitting on top of a desk. The child had a pageboy haircut, which made us think he might be one of the first and biggest child stars of the 1920’s, Jackie Coogan. There appeared to be a man standing over him. We couldn’t quite see this character, or know for sure that it was a man. We could no longer tell.

Identifying nitrate deterioration

Our uncertainty arose from little Jackie being swallowed up by waves of murky distortion, insidious mire that was the result of terminally, self-destructive chemical changes in the film base. This is what is simply called “nitrate deterioration”. This negative was sticky to the touch and pungent with the sweet smell of this decay, which some liken to cough syrup. The smell is anything but pleasant.

The strong off gassing of this negative, or any like it, can induce autocatalytic chemical change and resultant deterioration in otherwise “healthy” nitrate stored in its proximity. Its sticky surface can adhere it to adjacent, negatives, melding them together on either side of the initial culprit. The process repeats itself until all negatives in a box become infected…then adjacent boxes become infected. For this reason we identify and isolate these deteriorating holdings and prior to their inevitable destruction, always attempt to replicate the precious image by scanning them, one last time.

Upon checking the studios digital library, we were relieved to discover that this very image had already been scanned, as recently as June of 2007. That image was fully intact and beautiful in the way that all nitrate photography can be. Its detail was sharp and its range of mid-tones was varied and rich and it had the characteristic nitrate highlights. It’s the granular silver content in the film that gives nitrate images this resonating sparkle and presence.

Identifying people in historical photos

Aside from the aesthetic appeal, to our surprise the image, now seen in its entirety, had meaning and integrity. It was indeed a young Jackie Coogan, made famous after portraying “The Kid” in Chaplin’s 1921 milestone picture of the same name. Jackie had gone on to dozens of starring roles thereafter, including two pictures made at Metro Pictures not long afterwards, 1923’s “Long Live the King” and “A Boy of Flanders”, made the following year.

One of our team technicians, Stan Taffel was able to identify the man, it was a man, standing over young Jackie, none other than the director/producer/composer and screenwriter, Victor Schertzinger. And Schertzinger had produced both of Jackie’s Metro pictures. Schertzinger was now visible standing next to Jackie, perched on yes, the edge of a desk.

Here they both are, in a posed Metro Pictures Publicity still with Jackie at the crest of his popularity. It is a moment that might have now been lost, if not for this earlier scan.

MGMP-328
Pristine, when scanned in 2007.
D-MPGP-328
Lost, when re-encountered in 2016.

In less than 9 years time, this delicate negative, while stored under the same archival conditions, had silently succumbed to its’ own destruction. The same fate can befall any nitrate negative, and even in less time.

We couldn’t save this negative as in its current condition, it is now slated for authorized end-life destruction. We are however, glad that we could remove this unstable, off gassing element before it infected other negatives. And we’re delighted that its unique historical capture lives on, transmuted to the digital realm.

Randy Gitsch

Randy Gitsch

Randy Gitsch is the Operations Manager for PRO-TEK’s Still Archive operations. With a workforce in place on site at one client’s locale and working on select images from other studios under PRO-TEK’s own roof, he oversees the inventory, archival re-sleeving, re-housing, scanning and QC of Hollywood’s priceless legacy, analog photography.
Randy Gitsch

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