Unveiling the Colours of Cellulose Nitrate Black and White Film-based Negatives in Colonial Photography

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Aiming at contributing to the preservation of black and white (B&W) film-based negatives held by Portuguese archives, four photographic collections from the first half of the twentieth century were selected for study. During the macro assessment of the collections the preservation condition and hues found in photographic negatives from the Elmano Cunha e Costa (ECC) were noticed, distinguishing this collection from the remaining ones. Additional attention was given considering that the ECC collection was formed in a colonial context in the 1930s, while the others were formed on the Portugal mainland. The ECC collection results from an ethnographic survey of Angolan tribes recorded with B&W film-based negatives. In this collection, sets of negatives with pink, lemon yellow, greenish, orange brownish, and red brownish hues were found. To identify the origin of such hues, the image layer was analysed by microscale energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence (μ EDXRF) and scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX). Additionally, to assess the base decay and its effect on the formation of hues, the plastic supports were characterized by Fourier transform infrared microscopy (μ FTIR). To complement the assessment of the film-base decay, pH was measured by using combined microelectrodes. The identification of mercury, iodine, chromium, and iron by μ EDXRF allowed correlation of the hues found in the negatives with chemical corrective treatments performed to improve the image quality. SEM-EDX confirmed those results and proved that the elements found were in the photographic emulsion layer. The results obtained are relevant since the hues identified may now be used as markers to indicate the technical work performed on colonial photography. Additionally, the visual and molecular assessment of the negatives’ supports (good to fair condition) allow proposing that the original storage conditions may have had a beneficial contribution to their present condition.

Original languageEnglish
JournalStudies in Conservation
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 17 Feb 2020


  • black and white film-based negatives
  • image corrective treatments
  • pH
  • Photography
  • μ EDXRF
  • μ FTIR


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