Genthe photographed his subjects in both black-and-white and color, using a variety of formats. Photographic negatives are made of an image-forming substance or emulsion, which is coated onto a base or support. The bases found in the Genthe collection are either glass, nitrate film (nitrocellulose), or safety film (cellulose acetate). Each type of negative base has a different aging process with a unique pattern of deterioration. Other factors may also influence the rate of deterioration: manufacture, storage conditions, handling, and film processing.
Conditions of the original negatives vary. Some images are pristine; others are obscured in varying degrees by deterioration. The following examples are categorized by specific film type and show typical examples of deterioration. They are ordered from best to worst condition with the progressive stages of deterioration shown together in one frame at the end of each section.
In some cases, the deterioration is so great that the negatives can no longer be printed. The identifying information provided for each image in the introduction may be used to locate bibliographic records within the Genthe collection catalog. These bibliographic records provide the titles, dates, and descriptions for individual photographs as well as characterize the condition of the original negatives. Consult these individual catalog records for reproduction availability.
Glass negatives are heavy and fragile. They are subject to breakage, chipping, fractures, and flaking emulsions. Despite its age, this glass negative is in excellent condition. In this portrait of actress Margaret Anglin, dated 1912, Genthe's arm can be seen in the foreground.
Nitrate Film Negatives
Nitrate (nitrocellulose) film was first manufactured in 1889 and provided an alternative to the fragile and cumbersome glass plate negatives used by photographers since the 1850s. Flexible film bases made possible new formats in still photography and motion pictures. This undated image shows minimal signs of deterioration. The three dancers were photographed in Genthe's studio between 1915-1923. In a final print it is likely that Genthe would have masked the backdrop behind the subjects.
Unlike glass negatives, chemical instability of the film base causes nitrate negatives to deteriorate. In early stages of film deterioration, clear film changes to shades of yellow and amber. The emulsion may also fade and take on a silvery appearance, sometimes referred to as "mirroring." The three dancers shown here, circa 1917, are obscured by the silver mirroring of the emulsion layer. The mirroring creates the halo effect visible around the figures in the center.
Genthe's photograph of the dancer Anna Pavlova, dated 1915, exhibits a more advanced stage of deterioration. In addition to overall mirroring, the borders of the image show signs of staining.
Genthe took this photograph during a trip to Japan in 1908. Although portions of the temple are visible, cracks in the negative have rendered the original film unprintable. The most brittle outside portions of the negative have broken away completely.
In the final stages of nitrate film decomposition, image loss is total. Negatives deteriorated to this stage become sticky, eventually melting together. The final stage of deterioration is the transformation of the film from a sticky mass to a brown powder. Nitrate film manufacture was discontinued by 1951 because of the hazards posed by this highly flammable film.
Motion Picture Film
Genthe described his work with motion picture film in his autobiography As I Remember. He observed that this new medium was ideal for capturing the most evanescent of art forms: the dance. He made many films of Isadora Duncan's students but considered his attempts experimental. Although no full-length reels are known to exist, a few frames of 16mm film, such as the ones shown here, are in the collection. These images are dated between 1914-1927.
Safety Film Negatives
Safety film (cellulose acetate) was developed as a substitute for flammable nitrate film. Although the problem of flammability was eliminated, acetate film is subject to deterioration because of its unstable chemical composition. As it ages, the film becomes embrittled and gives off the odor of acetic acid (vinegar). Other signs of deterioration include shrinkage and warpage of the film base. Distortion of the image occurs as the film base forms channels and delaminates, separating into layers. Plasticizers may crystallize and appear opaque. Negatives, such as the one shown here, are too fragile to be printed.
Safety film negatives in all stages of deterioration can be found in the Genthe collection. Despite channeling, the information in many of the negatives is often partially legible. Such images may be used to identify or corroborate an intact image from a print or another negative. In extreme examples the image information is obliterated entirely. Most of the safety negatives in the collection are intact. In this example, dancers Blanche Talmud and Martha Graham were photographed for a performance in New York's Neighborhood Theatre, May 1928.
The negative on the left exhibits some channeling which appears as light areas tracing across the image. The information in the image is still quite legible. The portrait shows Mrs. W.F. Williamson, dated 1932. The 1932 portrait of Catherine Rapp on the right demonstrates progressive deterioration of the film base. Severe channeling and crystallization of plasticizers obscure the image.
In this final example, the negative has become so channelled and embrittled that the base has broken into pieces. This portrait of Mrs. William Adamson, dated 1934, cannot be printed.