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Russell Leavenworth and His Photos
Russell Leavenworth founded Leavenworth Photography in 1895. For twenty-five years, he photographed the booming lumber and mining industries of northern Michigan. His photographic subjects would change drastically in 1919. That year, Lansing industrial giants vacationing in northern Michigan persuaded Leavenworth to photograph their city’s burgeoning manufacturing industries. Leavenworth’s business prospered, as REO, Oldsmobile and other large industrial firms became clients. Leavenworth and his son-in-law/business partner Hiram Maple expanded the commercial photography business to include “subjects as diverse as street scenes, car parts, workers’ strikes, vaudeville troupes and football games, Leavenworth lived up to the slogan plastered on the door of his company car: “Anything photographed, anywhere, anytime.”
To ensure that R.C. Leavenworth’s valuable negatives will not degrade, the Archives of Michigan has begun to preserve them. The Archives does this through cold storage, using the Critical Moisture Indicator (CMI) packaging method. This process involves placing the negatives in an airtight polyethylene bag and storing the package in specially designed archival storage boxes. Two four-ply matboards are microwaved for thirty seconds to remove moisture, and the sealed bag is placed between the matboards in the storage boxes. These boxes are then carefully labeled for future accessibility and sealed in a polyethylene bag with silica gel to prepare them for cold storage. A box in cold storage need only be defrosted for three hours to safely view the negatives. The CMI packaging method protects the negatives for several years against moisture and humidity, until they have to be repackaged. Using this process, the Archives of Michigan has successfully processed 120 boxes of Leavenworth’s negatives for Oldsmobile, REO Motor Car Company and Lansing Board of Water & Light.
When Negatives Go Bad
Due to improper storage and excessive heat and humidity, portions of the Leavenworth collection have been damaged. Nitrate negatives too deteriorated to identify or save are safely discarded in a large hazardous materials storage bin. Nitrate negatives must be properly disposed because they can actually self-ignite if the temperature rises above 106 degrees Fahrenheit for a sustained period of time. Damaged safety film negatives must be properly discarded as well due to “vinegar syndrome.” Vinegar syndrome is the term to describe, “the chemical reaction occurring during the natural deterioration of triacetate film base in a sealed container.” The degradation of cellulose triacetate combined with moisture forms acetic acid and a pungent odor. Damaged negatives that can be scanned were digitized to preserve the image before their disposal. The Archives of Michigan documented discarded negatives using a Microsoft Access database that identifies the negative’s number, former box location, and subject.
The Deterioration of Nitrate Film – Step by Step
The images below depict the various stages of nitrate film deterioration. Note that there is also a sixth step – in which the film breaks down completely and turns into a brown powder.
Mark H. McCormick-Goodhart, “On the Cold Storage of Photographic Materials in a Conventional Freezer Using the Critical Moisture Indicator (CMI) Packaging Method.” 1994
Les Paul Robley, “Attack of the Vinegar Syndrome: An in-depth examination of the insidious virus that is eating away at America’s cinematic heritage.” American Cinematographer June 1996. Link to Robley’s Vinegar Syndrome Article: http://www.capital.net/com/jaytp/VINEGAR.HTM
Amy Sands, “Leavenworth Maintains Commercial Niche.” Greater Lansing Business Monthly July 01, 2003. Link to Sands’ Article on Leavenworth: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa5316/is_200307/ai_n21333629/
Lisa Sparks, “Oldsmobile in Pictures.” Seeking Michigan Look! Blog, November 16, 2009. Link to Sparks’ on Oldsmobile and Leavenworth: http://seekingmichigan.org/look/2009/11/16/oldsmobile-in-pictures