View Full Version : Permanence of early film

16-Feb-2011, 09:01
There are lots of horror stories about how early movies were made on nitrate film which doesn't just disintegrate with time but actually becomes expolsive. I wonder if the same thing is true of film used in still cameras as they switched from glass plates? Are the negatives of Pepper #30 and AA's Half-Dome going to do the same?

16-Feb-2011, 09:02
I just remembered that Half-dome was made on glass plates. Sorry.

Peter Gomena
16-Feb-2011, 09:19
Early sheet and roll films were on nitrate bases. I believe nitrate film stocks were made up until the 1950s. Which stocks Adams, Weston and other early sheet-film users used, I have no idea. Some of the early acetate-based films deteriorate too.

Properly stored (dry, cool storage with good air circulation) nitrate negative are safe and will last for many years yet. They do start to deteriorate at some point, and once the deterioration begins, it doesn't stop.

Properly stored nitrate negatives, while flammable, do not spontaneously burst into flame. Poorly stored nitrate negatives (most notably movie film in closed metal canisters) can create some nasty chemical byproducts and reactions and can be very dangerous.

I worked with nitrate sheet film from the '20s and later at the Oregon Historical Society. They are not pleasant to handle. They put off an odor that irritates the eyes and throat. Many were in very good condition considering their age. Others were in various states of decomposition and had to be either printed, copied or scanned for preservation purposes.

Peter Gomena

16-Feb-2011, 11:04
There was not that much nitrate used for photographic purposes, ever - early roll film is rare to come across, and sheet film did not replace plates until after safety film had entered the market.

Nitrate got regulated around 1910, after several cinema fire disasters. In Europe, the US and the Commonwealth regulations pretty much limited nitrate film to professional use in safe environments, making it inaccessible for all purposes where the distribution could not be restricted to commercial customers holding a permission. That amounted to a nitrate ban for most casual types of photography - large scale studios sometimes continued to use it until it was banned for good in 1951, and it was widespread in the motion picture industry and many branches of technical photography, where savings on film had more impact, but amateurs or artists could not get the stuff that easily.

Acetate "safety" film is not much better than nitrate regarding archival properties, though - it does not explode or catch fire, but it rots even faster...

Peter Gomena
17-Feb-2011, 08:57
Interesting. The Oregon Historical Society inherited the archives of several commercial portrait and advertising studios, and sent thousands and thousands of negatives for hazardous material cold storage in California. (Thousands as in a 40-foot trailer load.) And that's from Oregon, a fairly sparsely populated state in the first part of the 20th century. Permits for commercial customers must not have been that difficult to obtain.

The early acetate safety films can deteriorate very badly. The various layers can separate and bubble. I've seen some that look like they were deep-fried.

Peter Gomena

John Kasaian
17-Feb-2011, 09:26
Kodak sold safety film at least in the early 1930's, likely earlier. Years ago I found a bunch of badly stored negatives from that era which were convuted and melted together after storeage in a trunk in a hot garage for 60+ years. If it were the old baseit would have been an explosion waiting to happer. I took on "clump" and gingerly ignited it in a safe area and..and...nothing!
I took another clump and pulled it apart so I could at least read what was on the rebate. "kodak safety film" I what is said.

17-Feb-2011, 10:03
Commercial studios did get permits, or even implicitly had them by virtue of being a registered business. But cold storage does not imply all nitrate - acetate has to be cold stored too, and if there is any nitrate suspected to be among the material, it must either be sorted out or all must go into safe storage.

I've done restoration work for a museum. In their collection there was quite a divide. Acetate dominated the post-plate era amateur, press and street documentary work as well as everything art. The modest amount of studio shots and commercial work they had were a mixed bag, but still more acetate than nitrate.

My main job with nitrate was salvaging their own archival documentation. The museum had had all their inventory photographed a few years before their main building and one of their magazines perished in the WWII bombings - ironically all that was done entirely on nitrate.

Merg Ross
17-Feb-2011, 10:07
The early Weston negatives seem to have survived quite well. What have not survived, are the cellulose triacetate "safety" films. In a relatively short time, depending on storage conditions, the acetate base shrinks and the emulsion separates. I have thrown out hundreds of my 8x10 negatives from the 1960's which were victims of this process. It is caused in part by the release of acetic acid.

However, the polyester-based films have survived (so far) and do not appear to be prone to a similar fate.

Daniel Stone
17-Feb-2011, 10:16
just out of curiosity,

are there ANY films(4x5 or 8x10) that are still on a acetate base vs polyster?

could one use CITRIC ACID as a stop? or just use a water stop bath?



Drew Wiley
17-Feb-2011, 11:55
Daniel - modern acetate or triacetate sheet film base doesn't seem to have any
permanence issues, but I hate it because it isn't dimensionally stable, so is terrible
anytime masking work or other form of precise registaration becomes involved. Unfortunately, about the only 8X10 transparency film left on the US market is 100 Provia, which is acetate base. Bummer. All the other Fuji and Kodak sheets films have been switched over to polyester. Why this is still exception, I don't know.
Emulsion peeling was probably more an issue back when black and white films were
routinely thick emulsions. Regarding nitrate film, one of the biggest concerns is that
institutions who store this medium can't get insurance. They either have to freeze
the collections (expensive, given the paramaters of "archival" cold storage), or the
collections have to be destroyed (which has happened in certain cases).

Drew Wiley
17-Feb-2011, 11:57
Daniel - a point I missed. The acetic acid issue is not the stop bath, which would be
rinsed off regardless, due due to a gradual breakdown of the film base itself over time.

17-Feb-2011, 13:05
the fire at the cleveland clinic ( 1929 ) also played a big role
with the development + use of safety film.


Daniel Stone
17-Feb-2011, 13:43
thanks Drew for clearing that up.

I'm saving to make a purchase of 5-10 boxes of Velvia 50 in 8x10 as soon as possible. Just to have some small "saftey account" of that film for the next 2-3 years use(possibly more if I get to shoot a lot). Getting it in 4x5 is almost no problem, the major stores here in LA carry it no problem. Same with Velvia 100 and Provia 100. I love Velvia 50 for most things(never in strong sunlight, I prefer later/earlier day), but Provia is great too. E100G is just a little too expensive for my pocketbook, and being able to get 20sht boxes from Fuji keeps the bulk in the freezer down.

Just waiting for Badger Graphic or someone to get it back in stock. I'm sure I'm not the only one :).

now to find those pesky LEE filters(.6 and .9 soft nd grads). They're almost impossible!

thanks again


Robert Hughes
18-Feb-2011, 15:46
Kodak was producing acetate safety film for 16mm from its inception - 16mm never had any nitrate based stocks.

Acetate films degenerate with "vinegar syndrome (https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Cellulose_acetate)".