Some photographs are best left to be discovered decades after they were first exposed. Much like the work of Vivian Maier — whose images were found years after she said her goodbyes — a recent finding of 22 undeveloped cellulose nitrate negatives from a 1914–17 Antarctic expedition reignites our wonder at the opportunity to glimpse a past thought lost.
This set of photographs captures Ross Island, McMurdo Sound, and Alexander Stevens, the expedition’s chief scientist. Ten men from that expedition, which was part of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Ross Sea party, were stranded on the icy continent for nearly two years after their ship, the SY Aurora, broke loose during a gale and drifted out to sea. Three men would die, including the party’s photographer Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith.
These are images from an era that is fondly referred to as that of “heroic exploration.” There was only minimal damage to the edges of the photographs, and conservators were thus able to perform a nearly complete restoration (the partially mould-covered photographs had been found blocked together). New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust executive director Nigel Watson said in a press release:
“It’s the first example that I’m aware of, of undeveloped negatives from a century ago from the Antarctic heroic era. There’s a paucity of images from that expedition.”
The explorers’ choice of cellulose nitrate film was at least partially to thank for the image preservation. According to Kodak, the nitrate base was used in motion picture film, and eliminated from production around 1951–52. Known to be a relatively unstable base, such film easily becomes a fire hazard if it is not allowed proper ventilation. It breaks down in higher temperatures, and when it deteriorates it emits toxic gases that are oxidizing agents. The Kodak site goes on to note that under the right conditions, cellulose nitrate film can last for “decades or generations.” Nitrate film that is decomposing will be sticky or “badly buckled.”
Luckily, the film that these explorers left behind in Antarctica didn’t contend with anything that would cause it to combust: temperatures at McMurdo Station, near where the images were found, range from –28 degrees Celsius (–18 degrees Fahrenheit) to –3 degrees Celsius (27 degrees Fahrenheit).
h/t The Verge