My friend the antiquarian Dumpster diver—of pen-and-ink diagram fame—saw me in the South Granville McDonald’s earlier this month. So he stopped to show me the stack of some 200 black-and-white photo negatives that he rescued overnight from a massive housecleaning somewhere along the Cambie corridor, as he pinpointed it.
He explained that the homeowner actually encouraged him to come back with a car and take as much more as he could.
The negatives he had were large—probably 70 to 100 years old—consisting of dry gelatin emulsion on a clear, flexible plastic film, either made of cellulose nitrate, or the less flammable cellulose diacetate (a.k.a. “safety film”).
Any number of photographers will know better but I judged these to be vintage 116/616 Kodak roll film—meaning either #116 (sold between 1899 and 1984), or #616 (introduced in 1932 and also discontinued in 1984); both produced negatives measuring 6.5×11 cm (2.5″x 4.25″).
Many of these old negatives are still quite shipshape
As my friend showed me successive negatives, he dealt them to me like playing cards off of a deck. I was reminded of a magician performing a card trick. He even kept up a sort of conjurer’s patter—describing, in turn, what he thought each negative depicted.
One in particular caught his fancy: it was of a small, moored steamship taken from a dock. Four passengers could be seen standing on deck at the bow. The name Lady of the Lake was clearly lettered on the ship’s starboard bulwark.
The name hardly helps pin a location or date to the photo.
The Lady of the Lake is a mythic British spirit that figures in a cycle of medieval English literature collectively known as the Matter of Britain. She is likewise closely associated with the legend of King Arthur. As such, hers has been one of the most popular names for a lake-going vessel in the English-speaking world for centuries.
Sitting in a window seat of the restaurant, I took the negative and held it, matte emulsion-side-up, flat against the window in front of me. With my other hand I photographed it with my little Dumpster-dived point-and-shoot camera. Then I opened the photo in an image editing program on my laptop called GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program).
Beyond choosing the “invert” option under the “Color” sub-menu, to turn the negative into a positive, I did little more than some curve-based colour correction and sharpening.
That was all the magic I was capable of before drinking my second cup of morning coffee.
But it sufficed to give us a good look at the content of the negatives and it was quick, so I did a few more.
But Wednesday was altogether overcast and grey. I told my friend that we should wait for the next sunny day before photographing any great quantity of his negatives. I also suggested that he price having them properly scanned by a repro house.