I’ve been archiving old work, scanning prints and negatives to save as digital files. The more I looked at the old work, the more I enjoyed it. Then I got to the box marked “’67, ’68, ’69, ’70.” Work that was as much as 50 years old. The box contained hundreds of glassine sleeves full of negatives. That’s when the real fun began. For the next two weeks, four to five hours a day, I went through that old box. I had some observations along the way
■ I was constantly reminded that this work was 50-plus years old, and that meant I’d been working as a photographer for half a century. Back then gas was 34 cents a gallon, there were no mobile phones, and I was in my 20s. Sobering.
■ Glassine sleeves. Remember those? They keep the negatives well, but you have to take the film out of the sleeve to actually see it. Big pain. God bless Print Files.
■ The older the work was, the less likely I was to remember it, and the more rewarding it was to discover.
■ Found a negative of one of my favorite pictures. It was a single frame, nothing like it before or after.
■ I was easily amused 50 years ago.
■ What was written on the glassine sleeve was not necessarily what was inside. “Candy shop." No, it’s a coffee shop. Says so right there on the sign in the window. One bunch of negatives was marked “Kids in snow.” Imagine my surprise when I also found two women struggling in the snow with a little red wagon full of cases of Blatz Beer.
■ Often the file was not marked at all.
■ There were a lot of files marked “Love.” If I had been more accurate, I should have marked them “Fondness.”
■ Reading negatives well is a lost art. I often deleted scans after seeing them as a large positive image. And using a magnifier is painful; I’ve become used to editing while sitting comfortably looking at a big monitor.
■ My quality control about what to scan varied widely.
■ One package was marked “Contest negs, do not touch.” Maybe I was warning my future self not to even think about looking at those again since they were so NOT contest-worthy.
■ Every once in a while I scanned a negative that had little value other than it amused me. I am apparently still easily amused.
■ Every once in a while I scanned one that had questionable value other than it was historical.
■ Film, particularly old film, is dirty, full of dust and blemishes (as opposed to the pristine digital files of today). But the film quality is wonderful. God bless Tri-X.
■ Nose grease still works as a negative cleaner. But nothing can clean what I’ve dubbed “the dreaded white spots of death.” They’re apparently caused by degeneration of the silver in the film, most likely a result of hasty fixation. Imagine that, a newspaper photographer rushing the chemical process …
■ Getting rid of dust is not for the faint of heart. Unless you are in a controlled environment, you can’t possibly get every negative absolutely clean. God bless Photoshop.
■ I love color and work with it almost every day, but black and white rules. Still.
■ Every once in a while you run across the negative of a picture when all you had before was a damaged print.
■ Every once in a while you run across a truly wonderful picture you had forgotten about.
■ Every once in a while you run across a truly wonderful picture of a situation you have no memory of at all.
■ Found some pictures of events I’ve covered year after year; sometimes the oldest version was better than any attempt since.
■ The quality of a scan from a negative is often far superior to a scan from a print and reminded me how heavy-handed we used to be when making prints. Dark, high contrast. Dramatic, we thought.
■ I seemed to have had a fascination with landscapes — trees and water primarily. I am no longer fascinated.
■ Using paper clips to hold together negatives in several glassine sleeves seemed like a good idea at the time. Wrong. The clips bent some of the negatives.
■ Found a set of pictures where I’d used a flash on-camera. Horrifying.
■ Reaffirmed for myself how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to work for newspapers in their finest years. I was sorry when I finally emptied the box.
To continue archiving my work, I now must start going through 15 years of digital files. That’s a staggering number of pictures. Good thing I’m sort of retired. ■
Bryan Moss is a photojournalist who makes pictures of everyday people doing everyday things in and around Corydon, Indiana. His website is lifeincorydon.com. Moss can be reached at [email protected].