Remember the Maine

Every image we work with is compelling in its own way but recently we received a box of 30 nitrate negatives for preservation that had appreciable historical significance. So badly curled, brittle, and stuck together were the almost 120-year-old negatives that our client had never before seen many of the images in his possession – which included those of US forces in Havana Harbor, Cuba and the doomed USS Maine.


Digital image of the destroyed USS Maine from original nitrate negative.

The USS Maine was a second-class battleship dispatched by President McKinley to Spanish-colonized Cuba in early 1898. The ship was sent by McKinley in an effort to calm the current situation of the country, long in revolt, as well as pacify Americans outraged by the treatment of Cubans at the hands of Spain. In its third week of being anchored in Havana Harbor, the USS Maine was sunk by an undetermined explosion —killing 266 members of its crew— and served as a catalyst for the Spanish-American War. The war, which lasted a mere four months, is considered the pivot point for the United States’ emergence as a world power at the turn of the century.


The badly curled negatives were carefully separated, flattened, and stabilized.


Despite the poor state in which the nitrate negatives came to us, relative to their age they were in surprisingly good condition. Nitrate film became available for purchase by the public just a decade earlier in 1889 and is known for its inherent instability along with health and safety issues when not stored or handled properly. For in-depth information please see our article Negative Deterioration: Digitization and Preservation of Cellulose Nitrate and Cellulose Acetate Negatives.


Broken negatives were stabilized before being repaired digitally.



Stabilized nitrate negatives collated and prepared for digitization.

Once we walked our client through shipping the materials to us all of the negatives needed to be separated, flattened, assessed, and stabilized. Each negative then underwent a high-resolution capture in accordance with FADGI guidelines, creating archival and production master image files, and all broken negatives were digitally pieced together to restore image integrity.  After digitization, the original nitrate negatives were then stabilized in archival enclosures. In this case, our client chose to keep the original negatives but many clients opt to have us dispose of them safely once the images have been captured and preserved. Another option in dealing with nitrate or any negatives is to output the image files back to a traditional silver halide film while also maintaining a digital file.


Digital image from original nitrate negative.



Digital image from original nitrate negative.

We are pleased to have played a part in preserving such compelling historical images which allow both us and future generations to consider the past.  If we can help you meet your preservation needs through our extensive experience in handling film collections in various states of deterioration please contact us.

Posted in Archival Digitization, Digital Imaging, Digital Restoration, FADGI, Negative Scanning, Nitrate Negative | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

CAW Digitization of Norman Rockwell Photos

The Chicago Albumen Works has worked with the Norman Rockwell Museum on a variety of digitization projects including the documentation of Rockwell’s magazine cover illustrations and his advertising work. Our most recent project with the museum was the digitization of over 20,000 photographs as part of the museum’s digital experiences project.  These digital images provide greater accessibility for researchers and the general public to behind-the-scene images of the artist’s working method and his private life.

Reference photo for Portrait of Robert F. Kennedy, c. 1968. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. All rights reserved.

Reference photo for Portrait of Robert F. Kennedy, c. 1968. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. All rights reserved.

The Norman Rockwell Museum is located in Stockbridge Massachusetts and is

… dedicated to education and art appreciation inspired by the legacy of Norman Rockwell. The museum preserves, studies and communicates with a worldwide audience the life, art and spirit of Norman Rockwell in the field of illustration.

Further information about museum hours and admission can be found here.

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Before and After: 35mm Acetate Film Stripping

As we have posted previously, we have had some success treating deteriorating 35mm negatives by stripping the gelatin image layer from its acetate base. These are scans of the stripping project and experiments that we have been carrying out over the last few weeks. These before and after pictures show the potential efficacy of stripping 35mm  film as a treatment for negative preservation and digital image capture. b-a_japan

The “before” scan shows both channelling and blister-like bubbles that marred the image on the film. One can also get a sense of the curling of the film strip from the highlights around the edge of the sprocket holes because the film was unable to be flattened completely in the scanner.ba_face_japan

While stripping can’t eliminate all the image flaws in deteriorated film it can go a long way to render the image workable as well as stabilizing the gelatin layer by removing it from the damaging effects of decaying acetate.

Single frame before and after example of a 35mm stripping treatment.

Single frame before and after example of a 35mm stripping treatment.

Once the gelatin layer is flattened and dry the gelatin is relatively resilient (though not suitable for traditional enlarging) but stable to further changes if kept in a proper storage environment.

The negative can at this point be digitized for archiving or for digital output as an LVT negative or pigment print.

Posted in 35mm Duplication, Acetate Deterioration, Acetate Film Conservation, Acetate Film Restoration, Archival Digitization, Digital Restoration, Negative Scanning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Digitizing a Lincoln Ambrotype

Before and after conservation treatment by The Better Image.  Image use courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In a recent collaboration with The Better Image, CAW created an in-depth, hi-resolution digital record of the ambrotype, Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, May 7, 1858, by Abraham Byers for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Plate shown (from top to bottom) inside the original brass mat, without mat on black background, and viewed with transmitted light

Plate shown (from top to bottom) inside the original brass mat, without mat on black background, and viewed with transmitted light

The portrait, taken by eighteen-year-old Byers, was made in Beardstown, Illinois on the same day that Lincoln successfully defended Duff Armstrong for murder charges.  Byers recalled the encounter “He cast his eyes down on his old holland linen suit which had no semblance of starch in it, and said, ‘These clothes are dirty and unfit for a picture.’ But I insisted and he finally went with me.” (Source: Kunhardt III, Philip B., Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr.. Lincoln, Life-Size. New York, 2009)

This unique quarter plate cased image was in need of cleaning and conservation assessment due to concerns over an area on President Lincoln’s chin where the collodion had fractured and separated from the glass.  The treatment of the plate would require removing it from it’s case, which offered the rare opportunity of viewing the plate without the brass mat and preserver.  To make the most of this opportunity, Peter Mustardo of the Better Image approached us to produce images of the plate and surrounding components both before and after treatment to provide the fullest possible digital documentation of both the image and it’s condition.

Upon disassembling the ambrotype, it was discovered that the orientation of the plate (collodion side down) was not the plate’s original orientation.  A slight impression from the oval mat on the surface of the collodion indicated that, while the correct orientation of the portrait was collodion side down, the plate had originally been cased with the collodion side up.  After treatment of the plate, glass, mat, and preserver, the plate was returned to the case in it’s original orientation.  In addition to being historically accurate, this also reduced the appearance of the discoloration and cracking in the chin area of the image.

The before and after treatment images of the plate, as well as the images of the components of the case, were produced using our Hasselblad H4D-200MS camera, allowing for files of up to 3,400 ppi for this size of image.  The plate was lit in a variety of ways to provide the most complete record possible of the condition and appearance of the plate.  The digitization of unique photographic objects can be used by institutions in a number of ways; they provide a detailed record of damage and deterioration of an image so that changes can be tracked over time, they can be used to reduce damage caused by handling and exposure of the object to harmful exhibition conditions through the use of a surrogate, and they can improve accessibility to the public through online publication.

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Digital Restoration of Painted Photographs

Before and after digital restoration of a deteriorating painted photograph. Image use courtesy of Kaufman family.

Before color film became widely available in the 1950’s, hand coloring photographs with various pigments was a popular way to artistically enhance or add realism to monochrome photographs.  In the case of portraits, over painting could almost completely obscure the underlying photographic image to give the impression of being a painting rather than a photograph.

Whether due to the instability of the base, the fragility of the pigments, or the poor adhesion between the two, heavily painted photographs on a white plastic base may deteriorate over time, causing the pigments and photographic emulsion to peel away from the support and dramatically degrade the image.

When the image is of a beloved family member, the loss can be felt greatly.  Restoring these unique objects digitally and producing high quality prints allows the image to not only be preserved, but also to be shared by more than one family member.

Before and after digital restoration. Image use courtesy of Lorimer Burns.

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Stripping & Recovering 35mm Acetate Roll Film

Over the past few weeks we have been working on an exploratory project that involves the stripping of the image pellicle from strips of deteriorating 35mm acetate roll film from the 1950s. Our previous experience with stripping microfilm led us to the conclusion that miniature film emulsions were too thin to be be stripped, so this recent series of tests is an exciting discovery.

The acetate base successfully removed from the gelatin image layer.

The acetate base successfully removed from the gelatin image layer.

Image pellicule after cleaning.

The image pellicle after cleaning.

These sixty year old negatives were badly curled and had bubbles forming between the gelatin and the base layers. However, through careful testing we have been able to successfully separate the gelatin image layer from the acetate base in order to recover the image layer.

This potentially opens up a new range of negative formats suitable for image recovery from vinegar syndrome and other acetate deterioration. The recovered pellicles are now stable and can be stored or prepared for high resolution digital capture in order to be printed digitally or have copy negatives made for continued service in the traditional darkroom.

While the our recent testing has been mainly on Fuji Neopan SS film, we are hopeful and excited to see how other types of older roll films from Kodak, Agfa, Ilford etc. will respond to our acetate stripping process.

Smoothing pellicule in preparation for digital image capture.

Smoothing the image pellicle in preparation for digital image capture.

We’ll update our progress as different films and formats are tried and tested.

Posted in Acetate Deterioration, Acetate Film Conservation, Acetate Film Restoration, Collection Services, Disaster Recovery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Digitizing Glass Plates for New York City Municipal Archives



Manhattan Bridge. Courtesy of the New York Municipal Archives.

Over time the history of an institution is often captured through photographs of the people and events that helped shape it over the years. Digital technologies have made it easier to share these images and the stories they tell, but it then becomes necessary to digitize large collections of negatives in order to bring these histories to life.

Stone mason on Manhattan Bridge

Stone mason on Manhattan Bridge. Courtesy of the New York Municipal Archives.

In 2011 the New York Municipal Archives embarked on just such an extensive digitization project of glass plate negatives.  The Chicago Albumen Works is proud to have played a pivotal role in the capture of over 20,000 of glass plate negatives documenting the construction of a number of the city’s landmark bridges as well as other public works projects undertaken in New York City during the late 19th and early part of the 20th century.

Given the large number of plates in the the collection and the fragile nature of the glass negatives, we set up work stations on-site at the archive for several months each year over the course of the project. This allowed us to collaborate closely with the Municipal Archives’ staff assessing the condition of individual plates and re-assembling and capturing plates that had been broken or otherwise suffering from the effects of time. Using a combination of flatbed scanners and high resolution multi-shot cameras we created high resolution image files of the plates from which we made positive digital “contact” prints making the images readily accessible to the public when they are added to the archive’s digital repository and presented online.

Manhattan Bridge footing, Brooklyn Bridge in the distance.

Manhattan Bridge footing, Brooklyn Bridge in the distance. Courtesy of the New York Municipal Archives.

To see more photographs of New York City, the Archive has published a large collection of its holdings online at: New York Municipal Archives Gallery.

The Chicago Albumen Works works in both the private and public realms digitizing extensive holdings of negatives and plates for both improved access and for posterity. We have extensive experience working with negative materials from glass plates, sheet film and roll film from all eras.



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Digitization for Private Collections

A recent Barron’s blog post featured quotes from Chicago Albumen Works’ Director Doug Munson.

“Families that have approached us for digitization had private collections that have been passed down from the 19th and 20th century, and now there are three generations of people who are interested.” These families, Munson said, subsequently used digital images to create facsimile albums, scrapbooks and reproductions. “In addition, private collectors can enhance the value of their collections before a donation is made, to relieve the museums or historical societies of digitizing expenses,” he said.

In other words, increase awareness of your private collection, through making digital images available to the public, and the value of your collection should rise. Working exclusively with flat objects, particularly photographs, Housatonic, Mass.-based Albumen Works takes pride in working under the rules of museum-quality conservation. Munson said that the ubiquity of scanners has been an unfortunate fact for digitization. “It feels like you can push a button and that photo is magically on-screen,” Munson says. Furthermore, digitization a decade ago was inferior, mostly because industry standards hadn’t yet been developed.

Read the full article by Crystal Kim here:

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Negative Deterioration Part Two: Cellulose Acetate Negative Conservation

Before and after conservation treatment, cellulose acetate x-ray from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command

Vinegar syndrome, or the process of  cellulose acetate deterioration, is an unavoidable issue for any collection of acetate negatives, either presently or in future decades.  Before deterioration occurs or early in the deterioration process, preventative measures can be taken to preserve negatives including cold or cool storage, adequate ventilation, and appropriate acid free enclosures – all of which can greatly extend the life of a negative collection.  Steps can also be taken to preserve the negatives through digitization and duplication before the deterioration begins to cause image loss.


Bubbling or “orange peel pattern” deterioration in acetate negative.


Crystalline deposits between layers of deteriorating acetate negative.


Very characteristic channeling of an acetate negative in advanced stage of deterioration.

However, once advanced deterioration such as bubbling, channeling, and crystalline deposits begin to form between the layers of the negative, more drastic measures must be taken to retrieve a legible image.  In the 1980s,  Doug Munson developed the first practical solution for recovering the emulsion layer (or pellicle) of cellulose acetate negatives.  Though it was already known that the gelatin emulsion could be removed from the deteriorating acetate film base, he eliminated the problems of fragility and dimensional stability of the emulsion layer by rigorously controlling the amount of water in the emulsion recovery routine, a process often referred to as “stripping”.  Because CAW already ran an accurate and highly calibrated negative duplicating facility, they were in a unique position to combine the stripping process with the creation of an extremely accurate duplicate negative on archival polyester film.  After recovering and duplicating 793 negatives from the Walker Evans Archive in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Doug presented his technique at the Photographic Materials Group meeting in 1997.  In 2000, Doug trained Kijoo Kim in the process.  Though the basic technique of stripping the emulsion layer from the base has not changed significantly since CAW began providing this service 30 years ago, over the last 13 years Kijoo has refined the technique while recovering over 11,000 negatives.  Emily Phoenix joined the acetate stripping team in 2010 and has recovered over 1,500 negatives.


Diagram of the layers of a film negative.

The ability to separate the image emulsion layer from a deteriorated acetate film base relies on the presence of cellulose nitrate subbing layers between the emulsion, support, and anti-curl layers of the negative.  The initial separation of the pellicle from its deteriorated acetate base can be accomplished by dissolving away these nitrate layers in a non-aqueous solvent combination.  Subsequent solvent baths perform three tasks.  They clean the pellicle of residual cellulose nitrate retained from the first stripping bath, they allow a progression from dangerous solvent chemicals to the less toxic ethanol bath, and they introduce a controlled amount of water to the pellicle to allow it to relax and be temporarily flattened, without evidence of its previous furrowing.

The next stage of the process is to flatten the pellicle, while still wet, between Mylar and glass.  If the pellicle is undamaged, this is usually simple to do.  Unfortunately, in many cases the emulsion is cracked or broken and must be carefully reassembled.  After the pellicle has been arranged, and reassembled if necessary, it is scanned and then dried in an archival paper sleeve.  We do not attach the pellicle to a new support since it is quite stable on its own, and if it is needed in the future it can be safely handled by an experienced photograph conservator.  From the digital file we produce an archival film negative using LVT film recorders and process the film in-house in order to carefully control the development, fixing, and washing of the negative to meet the highest archival standards.  This duplicate negative serves all practical purposes an institution may have, and the original pellicle is stored safely away from regular handling.


Kijoo Kim closing the cracks between the many pieces of a badly deteriorated 14×17″ x-ray. X-rays are particularly difficult to recover because they have not one but two emulsion layers. The process is like piecing together a puzzle. . . which happens to be mixed up in the same box with a different puzzle of the same image.

In published material on the subject of acetate negative deterioration, channeling is frequently referred to as the final stage of deterioration.  This is not the case.  A pellicle may be complete and undamaged even though channeling has occurred, and recovering these pellicles is a relatively simple procedure resulting in a complete image with no trace of deterioration remaining.  However, the deterioration process does not end there.  As the acetate base becomes increasingly brittle and breaks into pieces, it may force the emulsion layer to break along with it, resulting in cracks and pieces of the emulsion becoming separated from the rest of the negative.  Many years of practice have allowed us to become skilled at saving even very badly broken negatives, but we can only reassemble pieces that we have, and all too often the fragile pieces of emulsion are lost or destroyed before they are sent for recovery.


The orange spots on this acetate negative were most likely caused by nitric acid from cellulose nitrate negatives stored nearby. Nitric acid compromises the emulsion layer, and is one of the main causes (along with water damage) of a pellicle breaking down during the stripping process.

We have heard concerns about the potential of the stripping process to damage negatives.  While there is risk involved, it is slight compared to the risk of taking no action.  Of the tens of thousands of negatives that we have recovered through this process, in only four cases was the emulsion compromised beyond recovery, and we were forced to use the “before” image for the duplicate negative.  In all of these cases we suspected that deterioration factors beyond those posed by the negative itself were at play – most likely nitrate negative contamination or excessive water/mold damage.  However, we have observed that every year we receive a higher proportion of negatives which have deteriorated past the channeling stage and are beginning to crack and break apart, as well as an increase in the number of negatives with indelible stains caused by the deterioration processes.  As more collections of negatives advance from a stage of deterioration where they are merely channeling or bubbling to a stage where they are breaking and crumbling, we fear that the number of negatives with image loss will, regrettably, rise.  Though we work steadily to increase our skill to meet the demands that the future may bring, it is our hope that collections are preserved before such labor and skill are required.  We encourage all institutions to make a preservation plan for their negative collections, both before deterioration occurs and once it sets in.  Though it may be daunting, the steps that we take in the present will preserve valuable images and information for future generations.


Close up of before and after the recovery process demonstrating the removal of crystalline deposits.

Posted in Acetate Deterioration, Acetate Film Conservation, Acetate Film Restoration, Archival Digitization, Archival Film Output, Collection Services, Negative Scanning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Negative Deterioration Part One: Digitization and Preservation of Cellulose Nitrate and Cellulose Acetate Negatives

Before polyester film became readily available in the 1950’s, all flexible film negatives were made on some form of cellulose nitrate or cellulose acetate support.  Both of these film bases have deterioration issues, and in the case of nitrate negatives, health and safety issues as well.

Timeline of Film-Based Negatives

Both nitrate and acetate film deteriorate, and while some of the characteristics of their early deterioration are similar, distinguishing between the two and separating them is extremely important because the characteristics of their advanced deterioration are quite different.  Chemicals released by deteriorating nitrate negatives can aggressively attack nearby negatives, prints, and housings and may turn recoverable acetate negatives into a negatives that cannot be recovered (more to come on the conservation of acetate negatives in Part Two of this post).

Deteriorating nitrate negatives, stored with safety film (acetate or polyester) can cause extensive damage to negatives which otherwise may not have deteriorated. The nitrate negatives found in the stack of negatives shown above destroyed the polyester and acetate negatives that were surrounding it, chemically burning through their sleeves and contaminating everything in the vicinity.


This is an example of a nitrate negative that has deteriorated past the point of recovery by any preservation efforts. It is also an example of a negative best examined under a fume hood as the gas released is both unpleasant and presents health issues.

Sorting through off-gassing, actively deteriorating negatives to try to identify the film base and decide on a course of action for their preservation can be both difficult and unpleasant.  While most of the negative collections that we work with have already been divided by media, some institutions prefer to defer to our expertise (and ventilation) when it comes to sorting through a collection of negatives with different bases and levels of deterioration which may or may not be salvageable for digitization/duplication.

Our routine for preserving the information from nitrate negatives at all stages of deterioration and from acetate negatives in the early stages of deterioration (without any bubbling, crystalline deposits, or channeling) is more or less the same.  Before the prevalence of digital media, the standard practice for preserving information from deteriorating negatives was to create interpositives and duplicate negatives on archival polyester film.  We now meet this preservation standard by creating high resolution scans and outputting to film via LVT film recorder which produces incredibly sharp, continuous tone, silver gelatin negatives suitable for either printing or as a preservation copy that can be scanned at a later date should the digital file be lost or corrupted.  This allows for the best of both the digital and analog worlds, providing the accessibility of digital images and the durability of an archival hard copy.  This is of particular importance for institutions or individuals with weak links in their digital migration strategy – a duplicate negative is human readable, unlike a digital file, and therefore does not need to be reformatted or migrated due to hardware or software changes.  After this process has been completed, the institution or individual who owns the negatives may choose to dispose of the originals or place them into cold storage depending on their value as physical objects and the extent of their deterioration.


This is an example of nitrate negatives that may or may not be suitable for preservation efforts. Many times we are able to carefully unroll negatives in this condition and digitize them to create duplicate negatives for preservation. Other times the nitrate has experienced too much deterioration and has completely adhered to itself, making the recovery of the image impossible.

Our extensive experience with negatives is an advantage at every stage of this process.  Assessing and working with many negative collections over the years has proven useful in being able to identify different film bases, even when they do not bare obvious characteristic traits.  We are experienced in handling them and make every effort to carefully flatten curled nitrate negatives and separate them in cases of adhesion.  In the case of broken negatives, the pieces may have shrunk at different rates and become deformed, making physically lining them up on the scanner an impossibility.  In these cases, our clients have the option of having us digitally repair the image so that the cracks or breaks are not apparent.

The final stage of the process, making duplicate negatives, has been one of our specialties for over 30 years.  We examine all film to check for both digital artifacts and analog flaws.  All black and white film processing is performed in house where we regularly perform methylene blue tests to confirm that there is no residual chemistry, and every negative is checked for density, sharpness, and dust.  For more information about our past clients and experience in this field, please see the history page on our website.

Resources for additional information on nitrate and acetate film deterioration, identification, and preservation:

Though this is published by the National Park Services and some of the recommendations are specific to NPS collections, this guide may be useful to other institutions faced with the sometimes daunting task of nitrate and acetate film identification and preservation:

Valverde, Maria Fernanda. “Guide for Identification and Preservation of Negative Collections.”:,_Maria_Fernanda._%22Guide_for_Identification_and_Preservation_of_Negative_Collections.%22

Posted in 35mm Duplication, Acetate Deterioration, Archival Digitization, Archival Film Output, Collection Services, Digital Imaging, Digital Negatives, Negative Scanning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment