Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Turning my negative thoughts about ephemera into positives

Sarah, my 12-year-old daughter, looked at the shiny slips of plastic sitting beside my Starry Night mousepad.

Sarah: What's that?
Me: Photo negatives.
Sarah: What's a negative?

And so, in this era of digital cameras, it turned into a small teachable moment with Sarah about Things From The Past. (Yes, you may go ahead and feel old now.)

For me, though, negatives are tantalizing but ultimately difficult to grapple with as ephemera.

I usually come across old sets of negatives as part of auction box lots. I get the sense that someone simply emptied the contents of a relative's drawer into a box and sent it on to the auctioneers.

The negatives are nestled among the forgotten receipts, travel brochures, magazines, postcards, restaurant menus and advertising flyers that tend to inhabit drawers for decades.

They might be packaged in interesting envelopes, such as the one shown here. But they are unsatisfying. I want to be able to see and examine the full image that's been captured on the negative, but it's difficult when looking at a small-sized inversion of a positive image.

It's difficult even when the negatives are larger than we're used to with "modern" film. Those that were packaged inside the envelope featured today are 2¼ inches square and were taken on Kodak Safety Film.

Clues as to when and where this film was originally manufactured come from its edges:

According to this page on HistoricPhotoArchive.com, there is significance to the circle that appears between the "S" and the "A" in SAFETY. It's the identification format for Kodak's plant in Rochester, New York. (For other factories, the symbol was placed between different letters in the word SAFETY.)

And different symbols — such as squares and triangles — were used to indicate the year of manufacture. The fact that this symbol is a circle means this film was produced in 1936, 1956 or 1976. I'm betting strongly on 1956.

Of course, the photos could have been taken a year or more after the film was purchased. But I'm guessing most people used their film promptly back then.

It's the images themselves, though, that remain mysteries.

There are companies that will take your old negatives and convert them to digital and/or paper prints. But the costs are not cheap, and they can be even higher for older negatives of different sizes.

Beyond that, my only option is attempting to scan the negatives with my Canon Pixma MG5220 and then using the "Invert" function in Pixlr.


It's not professional quality, but not horrible either. More importantly, this makeshift method with low-end equipment only really works on large-size negatives with a lot of contrast. Most of the negatives in this batch didn't convert as well as the image above.

So here, to end on a (ahem) positive note, are a few of the photographs that can be found on the Kodak negatives from that envelope. Let me know if you recognize this woman or any of these places!


  1. I can't even begin to imagine how many negatives end up in landfills every single day.

    Kudos to you for giving some a bit of an afterlife.

    Love the woman in the kitchen. What a classic slice of life!

  2. I absolutely love the title of this post. Admittedly, you had me fooled for a minute. I couldn't figure out how you could possibly be having negative thoughts about ephemera! This is a really interesting look at negatives, which I had just about forgotten. They've gone the way of flash bulb sticks. Like roadsidewonders, I love the negative of the woman in the kitchen. As always, nice work!

  3. Re Justin's comment about flash bulb sticks...Sylvania had a flash bulb(cubes)plant in Montoursville.