Film photography is a fascinating thing. Negatives keep for years long after your hard drives fail, your iPhone crashes, and your flash drive is lost. What happens when you lose your negatives?
From an article on PetaPixel.com,
The story of photographer Jacques Lowe and his iconic work chronicling the Kennedys and the era in US history known as Camelot is a tragic one. As President John F. Kennedy’s official photographer for three years — 2 before and 1 after he became president — Lowe captured over 40,000 photos of the Kennedy family at work and play.
Because of the immense worth these photos held to Lowe and the general public, he took great care in choosing where he would store his negatives; he chose a fire-proof bank vault in the World Trade Center.
On September 11th, 2001, his entire archive was lost.
There are no words to describe how attached my father was to his Kennedy negatives. They defined who he was as a person and as a photographer. When he moved to Europe in 1968, he purchased an extra plane ticket so they could sit at his side while traveling. Later, back in New York again to set up his studio, he tried to have them insured, but no insurance company dared. Those images were priceless, their value beyond calculation. So he stored them in a fireproof bank vault in the World Trade Center.
I went with him on countless occasions to the J.P. Morgan Chase Bank vault to retrieve or return negatives. There was always an air of solemnity in the room when he reached for one of the many manila envelopes as though what we were about to see and touch would bring us closer to something historic. Back out on the street, walking up West Broadway, he clutched his treasure trove until it was safe and sound in his studio.
In his cautiousness, however, he could not have foreseen 9/11. And not even that fortified safe tucked in a vault could protect his work from the inferno that raged within the World Trade Center. Although 5 World Trade Center still stood when the blaze was extinguished, it was condemned to demolition, the safe irretrievable. I campaigned for the rubble to be sifted; months passed and I waited. Then, early in February 2002, the bank called. “Your safe has been found.”
I went to claim it, clinging to the hope that some contents-anything-might have been rescued. To my surprise and horror, what I found was a safe, surrealistically intact, with its door open and a symmetrical hole where the lock had been. I peered in. It was empty.
Fortunately, 1,500 of Lowe’s contact sheets and prints that were stored in his studio in another part of New York City were saved. And now Newseum, in partnership with The Estate of Jacques Lowe, borrowed all of the original contact sheets and set about restoring some of Lowe’s iconic photography for an exhibit they’re calling Creating Camelot.
*The Newseum is a journalism museum located in D.C. that features everything from the beginning of journalism to the most recent technological advances. They have a section of the Berlin Wall, the top of the World Trade Center (displayed in a room that is wallpapered with the covers of newspapers and magazines around the world on that fateful day.) They also have an intense, heart touching Pulitzer Prize room displaying famous photographs as well as the cameras that took them. I recommend everyone go, even if you aren’t super into journalism. The ticket is good for two days because of how large the museum is.
In an except from TIME, Indira Williams Babic, the senior manager of visual resources at the museum, explained her team’s exhaustive process,
“There wasn’t anything first-generation that we could work off of,” she said. “We pored through around 40,000 images, give or take.” Pairing down the initial selection to around 1,000 images, Babic then sorted the photographs into smaller groups by content or location.
After this initial inventory, the Newseum’s design team began to figure out what the show would look like. These decisions dictated the specific restoration challenges ahead, e.g, if the design team wanted 60-inch prints from a 1-inch contact proof covered in pen markings and scratches.
“You know it’s going to be incredibly challenging,” Babic explains, “not to make it look artsy and beautiful, but the way it was supposed to look. We’re a news museum, so at the top of the list, we have to respect the photojournalist and his vision. We’ll make it big, make it beautiful, but make it real — that was the tough part.”
Many of the contact sheets were marked with scratches and printing notes. Babic points to the paradox of finding one of Lowe’s particularly-recognizable images amongst the thousands: the best photographs frequently had the worst damage. More often than not, the iconic frames on the contact sheets were covered with the photographer’s writing or surrounded by an excited scribbled circle. Every inch of stray pen mark could add numerous days to the restorationist’s workload.
After 600+ hours, seven image specialists were able to put 170 images on Display at the Newseum.
Film restoration isn’t easy but it’s yet another example of how digital and film can come together in a way that is beneficial for both mediums. Now, these photos, once considered damaged and ruined are now on display looking as beautiful as they did the first time they came out of the Permawash.