Learn. Educate. Imagine.

Box of nitrate film negatives. Courtesy of Marguerite Roby.

Recently I found a box in a file cabinet in the Smithsonian Photographic Services (SPS) cold vault labeled “nitrate.” Nitrocellulose was used as the first flexible film base and was replaced by acetate, or safety film, in the mid-1950’s. This may not seem like much of a red flag, but we tend to label this kind of material like this:

Sticker used for labeling flammable materials. Courtesy of Marguerite Roby.

Or this: Safe containing flammable materials. Courtesy of Marguerite Roby.

Nora Lockshin, SIA paper conservator, runs a test to determine the chemical make up of the suspect f

Because nitrate is highly combustible. It doesn’t need oxygen to burn and will even continue to burn when under water. That whole flammable part makes it pretty much unsustainable and well, kind of dangerous, but we archivists do like challenges and heading off disasters. We took the opportunity to educate our interns about nitrocellulose and tested the negatives in our conservation lab to confirm that the contents of the box were indeed nitrate film. Many of the negatives in the box had taken on a discolored hue and a brittle consistency. For the most part, the images were still readable and we were able to take steps to ensure proper care and housing.  There were a few instances where the negatives had cracked into pieces beyond recognition of the original image content. Towards the bottom of the box we found some nitrate film that had actually melted onto pieces of broken glass plate negatives. What were broken glass plate negatives doing in a box of nitrate? Wish I could tell you, but I am glad they were. This response might seem contrary to how I should be reacting to collection material being in such a degraded state, but I immediately recognized a new raison d’être for these objects. The textures, layers, and colors generated by the fusion of film to glass resonated with me and I mentioned this experience to a friend who, being a fellow fan of the beauty of decay, wanted to shoot close ups of this phenomenon. The results, shown below, have given these objects new stories to tell and have equipped us with new lenses through which to view our content.

Detail of nitrate film melted onto glass plate negative. Courtesy of John Gordy.

Detail of nitrate film melted onto glass plate negative. Courtesy of John Gordy.

Detail of nitrate film melted onto glass plate negative. Courtesy of John Gordy.

Detail of nitrate film melted onto glass plate negative. Courtesy of John Gordy.

We are in the business of providing content and we have the opportunity, if not the responsibility, to use that content to learn, to educate, and to imagine. And when I say “we,” I do not mean archivists; I really do mean all of us. Marvin’s recent post about artist Christian Boltanski, Beating Hearts, illustrates instances of archival material driving inspiration and it’s wonderful to see this kind of content taken to a new level. We, as archivists can tell you what it is and where it came from, but I encourage our audience to articulate what it could be. The example used in this post of nitrocellulose film melted onto glass is atypical of the contents we more generally make available for exploration and imagination. Check out other creative efforts on Flickr Commons:

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.