At some point in the early 1900s or so someone asked their family to get together and experience the wonders of photography. They’d spent a fortune on a camera and the glass plates that go in it. They rounded the family up, got them dressed in their finest clothes and dutifully worked out the exposure and took an image. Back then every single exposure was precious. Once taken it was wrapped up and either posted or taken to a processing house. If the glass didn’t break; if the exposure and focus was right; and the subjects stayed still enough, one glass plate negative was the result.
All that effort for one negative. They were precious objects, not like photos today which are looked at for a few seconds before they are lost forever, if they are seen at all.
Over a century after the picture was taken, possibly 110 years, possibly more, the descendants of the people in the picture passed away and the negatives found themselves in a secondhand shop. Something that had taken so much care and effort to produce lost and forgotten. Until, that is, I found them. Still in the box they were sent back from the processing house in London.
I held each negative up to the light and because my eye is still capable of remembering what it’s like to see and translate the negative image, I could see the impressions of people staring back at me. I bought the box and took it home eager to see the faces of people long dead, but provably alive. I was holding a piece of photographic history, yet I doubt anyone cared in the coffee shop I stopped in on my way home.
It’s not their fault. For a start photography today is a disposable commodity. It means nothing apart from a bit of marketing. And secondly, I was possibly one of the few people in the area with a scanner with the capacity to take a 5×4 inch glass negative and turn it into a digital image.
In my studio, I gingerly removed the first negative from the box, gently placed it onto the scanning plate of my Canoscan 9900f and requested it start a scan. As the image appeared I realised I could be the first person to see the image in a hundred years. On the screen was a family of 4 women and 2 men looking directly at me. The women, coy and shy unsure of what to do, an innocence not seen in the modern world anymore.
I picked up the next slide and scanned it, then the next and the next. Some had missed the exposure mark, others had motion blur, but all were amazing because they had survived a hundred years.
My trouble with the scans was they looked too perfect. It’s a problem encountered by period dramas on film and TV. Modern people expect old things to look old, without thinking that at one time they looked new. So I had to make the digital image, which was a perfect black and white, look sepia as that’s how people expect old photos to look
I picked up another box of glass slides a while later and gave them the same treatment. This time the images were mainly children, their innocent grinning faces staring back at me through a century of time. Each of those fresh eyes, I hoped had grown strong and then wrinkled and faded. However, I was aware that two world worlds had been fought between the picture being taken and me seeing it, so maybe not all of them made it to old age.
My next purchase was a box of old medium format film negatives. The box contained maybe 20 negatives. Two stood out. One of a pair of guys on Norton motorbikes, the other a man on his own on a bike. I am not interested in bikes, but the images jumped out at me and I scanned them and was surprised by the detail and closeness the images instilled. I have no idea who these people were (I have to assume it’s a were), but they looked cool. And it reminded me why I do this. Why I save old negatives whenever I come across them. And I urge you to do the same. To save little pieces of history. Search your grandparent’s loft and basements. Generally families kept the paper prints, which fade and die. It’s the negatives and transparencies that are important. Save them now, before they get lost to time and someone in a hundred years walks into a secondhand store and realises they have no means to scan the negatives they are looking at.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.