People have been taking photographs for over 150 years and finding negatives and films from this long history of photography can be exciting and fascinating. However, this can be a minefield leading to copyright and taste issues. Hopefully, this article will help to keep you on the right track, suggesting places to find films or negatives, how best to look after them, scan them, and even research their origins. I will also look into the copyright and ownership of these films.
Before I begin looking at these matters, it’s worth defining exactly what a ‘found film’ is. There are two types of found film: processed and unprocessed. Unprocessed films are those yet to be developed and, depending on their age, may require a great deal of care when processing them. These days, most unprocessed rolls come from cameras that have been sold with a half-used film inside, but as the camera world moves into digital, these are becoming hard to find. Film negatives/positives that have already been developed are often called processed found film. These type of found films are much more common, and have the advantage (or disadvantage depending on how you look at it) of displaying what is on the film in advance. Although true found film aficionados scoff at already-processed film, it can still be fun and rewarding to uncover some negatives that haven’t seen the light of day for 80+ years.
A matter of taste, a matter of interest
Recently when I was at a flea market (Barras, Glasgow), I saw trays and trays of old Kodachrome slides from the 1970′s. All had nice typed labels, organised by holiday destination: ‘Lanzarote’; ‘Majorca’, ‘San Francisco’, ‘Mother’. Wait a minute…MOTHER?!? Even though these boxes of slides were practically being given away I didn’t buy them. They failed for me on two counts: taste and interest. The holiday snaps from the 70′s were just two old people taking the same holiday photos that people take today at the same destinations (the one good thing was that the quality of the colour on the slides was still excellent: a testament to Kodachrome). They were of little interest, other than to the relatives of the people in the slides. The second failure was taste. I had no interest in the slightly creepy photos of some grown man’s ‘mother’ (who still calls there mum ‘mother’ when they are 50 years old themselves?!). This raised an interesting question: when is it ok to buy/acquire found film? When is it ok to scan the film and publish on the internet? Is there a cut-off date for found film or is it solely a question of interest and taste?
I personally don’t think there’s any cut off date for found film (as noted above, it comes down to interest), however you have to bear in mind that the newer a film is, the more chance that a) someone depicted in the photo is still around, and b) That person will see the photo if you decide to publish it online. Found film from the 1990′s can still be as interesting as glass plate negatives from the 1890′s. The opposite is true: film from 1887 can be just as boring as Aunt Vera’s holiday snaps from 1996.
The thrill is in the hunt?
Some people love it. Some hate it. Searching for old ‘stuff’ at jumble sales, flea markets and yard sales make some people giddy with glee, others cannot stand the rummaging around junk and prefer to buy items from the comfort of their own home or a proven retailer. Both have their merits, but where will you get the best results?
Depending on your location, flea markets and their ilk (car boot sales, yard sales etc) can be a goldmine for found film. As mentioned above, half-shot film can be found in old cameras and processed film (especially slides) can be found by the sack load at flea markets (mainly due to house clearances). The problem with the processed stuff is they are not that interesting: most are family or holiday snaps. You can still find good film at flea markets, but it does require persistence to get anything and for a decent price (most vendors think old=worth $$$ which is not always the case).
Another option, if you are not in the flea-hunting mood, is ‘proper’ shops. Either antique or specialist photography shops normally sell old photos, and sometimes old negatives. The negatives tend to be pre-war glass plate negatives, as they hold their value well and are considered ‘antiques’ by the dealers. The negatives found in these types of stores tend to be incredibly expensive: one such shop in Paris was selling standard 1940′s colour glass plate negatives of Switzerland for €15 each, and the seller had hundreds.
Paris leads me onto a strange anomaly: mainland Europe, and more specifically France. Flea markets and jumble sales normally yield more modern films, but in France, the spiritual home of photography, you can pick up incredibly old negatives for very little money, if you know where to look (small shops/flea markets in non-tourist parts of the country and cities).
The final place to look is eBay. Most versions of eBay have ‘old photographic images’ sections which contain negatives for sale. The good thing about eBay is you know what you are getting, but the downside is you know what you are getting. The thrill of the hunt is gone, plus you very often pay a premium. You also have to get incredibly lucky; many negatives on eBay may be old, but they are dull dull dull. Unprocessed film is hard to find on eBay these days too, with a few odds and ends appearing every so often.
Developing storing and treating
Developing found film can be tricky depending on its age. If you really care about finding out what is on the film, there are specialist companies(such as Rocky Mountain Film) that develop old film using specialist slow-speed, low-temperature, high contrast developers to get the best results with black and white film. If you want to try developing found b&w film at home, Kodak HC 110 is the developer of choice to use due to the developer’s success in reducing fogging. If the film is colour, and over 20 years old, people tend to develop the colour film as b&w as the colour dyes deteriorate faster than b&w, and you should still get the silver based layer.
Cleaning negatives can be difficult and hazardous depending on the type of negative used. If you have normal (i.e. non glass plate) negatives, you can rinse them in cold water and a touch of photoflo to try and clean them up and remove stubborn dust. You can also use a chemical called PEC-12 in small quantities to remove mould and marks, however be extremely careful with your negatives and always try out your cleaning process on a single negative first (preferably one you wouldn’t mind losing), and always take extra care with the emulsion side of the film.
If the negatives are glass plate, you hit a whole different mine-field. There are two general types of glass plate negative: wet
and dry plate. Older glass plate negatives tended to be collodion-based wet plate, with much more fragile chemistry for cleaning. Newer (post 1900) negatives were dry plate using a gelatine based layer and were much more robust and uniform than their wet cousins. There is one major rule to follow with glass plate negatives: leave it to a professional. You can clean the negatives with dust spray and a light brush, but unless you know the exact composition of the negative you should not use any type of liquids or liquid cleaner (for example, some gelatine layers can wash off with water!).
For more information you can consult the UMCA technical sheet copied on this page.
Storing negatives again depends on their type. If the film is normal, non-glass, store the negatives in suitable negative sleeves in a dry, stable-temperature environment. If you have glass plate negatives, store them in sleeves, vertically (long edge down) in storage boxes.
Some people bother, some people don’t. I personally love researching old photos! It’s fun making up your own stories behind found film, but it’s also satisfying to find out the true story behind the same physical item you hold in your hands that someone else did many years ago.
The first steps in researching found film is location. This can be split up into two lines of enquiry: where did you get the film, and what is depicted on the film. The first one is easier, where did you get the film? Does the seller know any history? The second line of enquiry, locations in the film, can be a bit more difficult. Are there any landmarks visible? Can you figure out the country? Are there any buildings or signs in the background? You will be surprised how easy it is these days to find out more information on the internet from just one small lead. An example of this is some unpublished Great War glass plate negatives that I acquired. I knew they were French due to the seller explaining where they were from (an old photographer’s studio near Le Mans, France), and a few of the photographs had a cathedral in them. I simply searched for a list of French Cathedrals and eventually found the one that matched: Amiens.
Once you have a physical location for the shots, the real research can begin. You can search the internet for the location and the rough date or event depicted in the photos, you can consult Google maps to locate buildings, you can even check with local historical societies and museums. The internet has made the world a smaller place, and all it takes is a few emails or discussion postings to find out a lot of information.
This can be a tricky deeply-grey area, which differs around the world and also differs depending on when the photograph was taken. Here are the basics.
- If the photographs were taken between the dates of 1st January 1945-1st August 1989 and you have purchased the film then you are the first owner, and have full rights on the photographs.
- If the photographs are of a person, unless they were commissioned by that person, they have no rights on the photographs.
- If the photographs were taken after 1st August 1989, then standard copyright applies: the photo will be copyright of the photographer until 70 years after their death (unless commissioned).
- If the film is pre 1920, you should be relatively safe, unless the negatives are explicitly owned by someone else (i.e. a family).
Please note these are just rough outlines, and please do not base any legal decisions on these. Holgablog can accept no legal responsibility for any action that might occur following these guidelines.