Presentation vs. Preservation
By Cole LeGree, Visual Holdings Technician
Since May 2019, I have been fortunate enough to be working in the Whyte Museum’s Archives and Library as a Visual Holdings Technician. As an excellent compliment to my analogue photography practice and completion of my BFA in Photography at Ryerson University (2020), my primary responsibility at the archives is to assist in the digitization and organization of photographic materials.
In addition to creating digital copies of images for research and reproduction purposes, digitization is an invaluable tool for the preservation of photographic objects. This is especially true concerning chemically unstable materials, particularly black and white negatives with a cellulose nitrate base.
Eastman Kodak originally introduced cellulose nitrate in 1889 as their first flexible film base. The flexibility of a nitrate base allowed for roll film to be produced on rolls and sheets rather than delicate and cumbersome glass plates. Within a decade, the innovation of flexible roll film would pave the way for smaller cameras that were able to be used handheld, making them highly marketable to amateurs and professionals alike.
Although the Eastman-Kodak company profited immensely from cellulose nitrate products, the disadvantages of the material eventually became evident. In addition to being highly flammable (nitrate can continue to burn even when fully submerged in water), nitrate negatives release hazardous gases as they degrade. These gases combine with water vapour to form nitric acid, further accelerating the deterioration of the negative. The ideal way to prevent these chemical processes is to freeze the materials in a low humidity environment.
Recently I have had the privilege of handling and digitizing the negatives of Mary Schäffer, all of which have been indicated as nitrate negatives. In addition to Schäffer’s local prominence as a photographer, botanist, and travel writer, the inherent instability of these negatives makes their preservation essential. Due to the negatives already demonstrating signs of nitrate degradation, preparing them for freezer storage is a priority. However, long-term cold storage is not without its own complications. In order to get the most out of cold storage preservation, it is crucial that materials are not frequently moved between varying temperatures, i.e. once materials are frozen, they must only be removed from the freezer under extenuating circumstances. In addition, if materials are removed from cold storage, they will need approximately 24 hours to adjust to room temperature before they can be accessed and handled.
This freezing protocol is in direct conflict with what archives consultant Laura A. Millar describes as “the ultimate archival activity”: providing public access. Especially with an archive of immense local and cultural interest like Schäffer’s, it is imperative to ensure that the images can be shared, reproduced, and accessed. It is at this point that digitization becomes a crucial tool for upholding the Whyte Museum’s mandate of preserving and presenting the cultural history of the Canadian Rockies. By digitizing the degrading negatives on a specialized flatbed scanner before they go into long-term cold storage, archivists are able to create digital reference copies for public use. This way, public access to the content of the images is easily facilitated while the original copies are preserved for future generations at an optimum temperature.