Beautiful damage…

I’ve talked before (over at the This Week in Photography blog) about how much fun it can be to rescue old negatives/slides from the obscurity of some box in the basement and get them added into your digital photo archive.  Most of what I’ve scanned so far have come from photos I’ve taken myself but recently (when my Mom moved to a new house) I came across a batch that date from the Mom&Dad era.  

Although many of them are a lot of fun (and several have incredible self-embarassment value)…

…I know that most are primarily of interest only to immediate friends and family.  

But one unique feature of this batch is that several of the original slides were severely degraded by water/mold/dirt/age.  And the patterns that emerged from this slow decay have their own (at least in my opinion) unique beauty as well.  The image at the top of this post is fascinating to me, and I particularly like looking at some of the close-up detail of where the colored emulsions have separated and migrated by the slow action of moisture and mold.  

Some of the photos are nothing but damage at this point, others are more of an exercise in trying to decipher the subject matter.  

And some feel almost intentional in the way they transition from relative clarity to some impressionistic bit of pseudo-randomness.

(It will be interesting to see if I’ll be apologizing to my mother more for posting such a damaged photo of her or for posting a photo where she’s wearing those ridiculous glasses…)

Maybe it’s the combination of age, damage and subject matter but I find that many of these images really evoke a strong sense of melancholy.  These next two in particular are almost haunting to me – and in the back of my head I can hear the slow, lonely notes of the minimalist piano score that would accompany them.  

I wish I was a skilled enough photographer to be able to capture this sort of thing intentionally.

For those of us who sometimes get caught up in the quest for razor-sharp, high megapixel, ultra-clean digital imagery, it’s all a nice reminder that there are just some things that can’t be quantified.



[Full-resolution versions of all of these scans (& a couple of others) are on flickr if you want to zoom into the details a bit more.]


15 thoughts on “Beautiful damage…

  1. That’s great. It deffinitly makes me want to look for old negatives myself. I really like what you said about the huge push for high res tack sharp images… the bottom three here are proof that things don’t always need to be perfect.

  2. This is kind of random, but a friend and I are doing a little project where we write and record a new song every week. Each week we like to have artwork accompany the background info on the song and I think the last pic would fit really well for our song this week. We’re getting ready to post the new song tonight (12/7/08) and I was wondering if we could use the last photo old_scan_8 for the song? The site is if you want to take a look at previous weeks. Thanks!

  3. @Tim – Absolutely, use whatever you want wherever. And thanks for reminding me that I need to mark these (like everything I put up on flickr) as Creative Commons licensed. (I wish the flickr uploader let me do that by default).

    And good luck with the music – I like the song that’s up there now.

  4. beautiful photos! its as if everything, at the end of its life, turns into a painting; we are all rembrandts in the making ;-)

  5. Ron – beautiful post. The last two photos are heart-wrenching. A memory and a feeling I also get melancholic when I look at old photos from the family archives. Something about the passage of time, about possibilities that existed…

    I have been collecting old glass negatives for a few years now. Of people and places I don’t know. I choose photos that speak to me, somehow. And since in most cases I cannot find any information about those in the photos, I am writing up my own stories about them. Many of them would have been my friends, some I want to invite over for dinner, spend an evening talking and sipping wine. Photographs can be so powerful. And in unexpected ways sometimes. These hundred-year-old negatives remind me of our common humanity, that despite all the changes in technology and cultural habits and several wars in between, we are all the same, with dreams and hopes and daily pleasures. And they remind me about the passage of time.

  6. And then there is the hidden story from the woman, unaccompanied by the sea, of her friend behind the funky glasses that she drove to the port that morning, who sailed past the horizon in search of … Batman.
    Great pics, Ron. Interesting find, and good write-up.
    Strange that the emulsions actually lose their color as they get older and crystallize(?).
    Any idea as to who took the final picture: father or mother or budding son?

  7. I agree that the images you’ve picked are gorgeous. But, I’m dying to know the story behind wearing the Batman costume while standing next to a Christmas tree. (Refusing to let Halloween go?) And since that photo’s you, I’m thinkin’ we have a better than even shot (no pun intended) of finding out. ;)

    • Honestly, I have almost no memory of this (except I do recall some significant controversy at some point over whether or not my little brother would have to wear a Robin costume or if he could also have a Batman costume… I think he ended up as Batman too). If I had to guess I’d be willing to bet that Halloween really didn’t have anything to do with this – I/we just wanted to dress up as Batman and asked for that as a Christmas gift. It’s possible that Mom bought the costumes at halloween but didn’t give them to us ’til Christmas?

  8. Then this is for you who love “damage” such as this…. DECASIA Was “performed with a live orchestra here in NYC a few years ago at St. Ann’s Warehouse

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