Mr. Robinson's Archive

Selections from the collection of Thomas Robinson, photographic negative preservationist.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the thinking of photography collectors and curators was dominated by ideas espoused by Ansel Adams and Beaumont Newhall: that the print was the final expression of art photography and that negatives were merely a step in the process, much as type fonts are related to books. At the same time, the economics of collecting photography brought historical photographs and postcards into the same markets as fine art photography. The result was that enormous collections of negatives were routinely discarded, recycled or sold for token sums, while old prints made from them sold for high prices.

Original negatives contain far more information than photographic prints. The tonal range from dark to light shades on a negative is twice as much as can be reproduced on a paper print. Prints, in fact, are copies of the negative. A digital photo printer can enlarge a drum scan of a 35mm slide to mural size with excellent results. The detail to be found in original camera negatives is, in terms of resolution, an entire order of magnitude higher/greater than that of even the most expensive digital cameras. A high-quality scan of a hundred-year-old original negative is as clear and sharp as a photo taken yesterday, and is much better than scans of old postcards and prints.

The widespread use of scanners and digital printers has inspired a new generation of collectors who eagerly seek the random piles of film and plates that deceased photographers leave behind. Photographs contain an enormous amount of information created in a slice of time that will never happen again. It is impossible to predict how the content of a photograph will be used in the future.

The digital revolution in photography ended a century of widespread film use by photographers. Now that the film generation is dying off, their negatives and slides are being separated from their creators and becoming orphaned intellectual property. In a manner of speaking, negatives are machine-readable documents. Their content is not readily understandable to the untrained eye. Often they are found mixed up and in overwhelming quantities. Collections of negatives are routinely offered at estate sales, storage locker auctions, bankruptcy auctions, or found abandoned in unexpected places.

Twenty-one years ago I stumbled onto a pile of old glass plate negatives taken mostly in Northwest logging camps. I was astonished at the detail I could see in them and built a darkroom so I could print them. And I began buying collections of negatives. I remember when a big dealer of historic photos sold me an enormous glass plate negative collection, dating back to the 1890s, that had been found in an old photo studio building in Eastern Oregon. He bemoaned that they were negatives, saying that if they were photos they would be worth a lot of money, but since they were negatives he would let me have them for less than a quarter each. In the ensuing years I bought thousands of collections, some comprising of tens of thousands of images each. Now I have a professional historian, a photographer and a librarian to help administrate these collections and the reproduction orders.

To illustrate my point, I selected five examples of remarkable negatives found among randomly mixed collections. The tedious work of researching these has revealed these unidentified negatives, each bought for very nominal sums, to be photographs of substantial historical importance and great interest.

Warren Curtis autopsy photo
Elvis Presley Press Conference
Thomas Elwood Hofer
Roald Amundsen

About This Story

  • Author: Thomas Robinson
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012
  • Print Publication Date: Jul 2008