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Chilling in the Photo Lab

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Here at the SFMTA Photo Archive we’ve been hard at work! After more than four years of intensive scanning, we're pausing to take a breath and take stock of what we've achieved. With the help of funds from the San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Fund Committee (matched by the SFMTA), we’ve put over 5,000 digitized and keyworded images of SF history on sfmta.com/photo for you all to view and enjoy.

Less visible, but just as important, our archivists hit a preservation milestone this August: 1,000 negatives frozen in cold storage. As part of our first major digitization project, we're rehousing thousands of negatives in new archival packets and boxes and putting a majority of them into frozen storage. By moving into chillier digs, our plastic-based film increased its lifespan by 500 years.

Archive staff person adds a carefully wrapped and labelled box of historic photographs to a cold storage freezer. This cold storage freezer holds over one thousand negatives as of August 2015.
Chill out! Photographic negatives are packaged for a long-term deep freeze in cold storage. Here a photo archivist adds a box to deep freeze. As of August, cold storage holds over 1,000 negatives.

Without a long-term, low temperature storage environment, film-based photographs will eventually undergo serious chemical changes that can permanently damage the negatives.  The image below compares two film negatives on the left in a poor state of preservation with the two on the right, looking lovely despite approaching the ripe old age of one hundred years.

Four acetate negatives are illuminated by a lightbox. Two negatives on the left are curled inwards in a way that damaged the photographic emulsion. Two negatives on the right are clear and lay flat on the surface of the lightbox. The image compares the difference between well-preserved film and deteriorated film.
Cellulose acetate negatives illuminated on a lightbox.  Film negatives on the left are in a sorry state of advanced deterioration, curling inwards and rendering the image un-scannable (in preservation parlance they are “channeled” and “crackling”).

To take the photo lab full-circle, for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature we’ve got an unusual “peek behind the curtain” into the realm of the photography wizards from our transit past. The image below shows the photo lab at United Railroads of San Francisco (URR) in the 1920s, filled with a cornucopia of chemistry supplies to develop negatives and prints. Although they were originally privately-operated, the URR was eventually incorporated into the SF Municipal Railway (Muni) in the mid-twentieth century. In addition to rolling stock such as streetcars, motor coaches (buses) and cable cars, the large collection of historic transit photographs from “the United” was also transferred to the city and merged with Muni’s already existing photo lab.

A view of a photography laboratory almost one hundred years ago.  This image was taken around the 1920s and shows thousands of envelopes containing film negatives in shelves on the left side of the lab.  The lab also contains many old fashioned bottles for photography chemicals and an assortment of tongs and clamps for drying prints.
A view inside of the photography lab of the United Railroads, likely taken around the 1920s. The envelopes on the left-hand shelves contain negatives, many of which are preserved today in the SFMTA Photo Archive collection, and shared online at sfmta.com/photo.

The photo lab shown above was under the direction of photographer John Henry Mentz and many of the images that form his life’s work are viewable on the SFMTA Photo website, with the 1906 Earthquake and Recovery Gallery representing some of Mentz’ most significant shots. While SFMTA photographers now create digital photos rather than images on glass plates and film, the Archive continues to preserve this historically valuable collection and share it with the public.

To see more images from the SFMTA Photo Archive, be sure to look for our pop up exhibit on the heritage vehicles at the upcoming Muni Heritage Weekend, September 26th and 27th.  And, as always, find more SFMTA photos on FlickrTwitterGoogle+, and Instagram