Can a Photograph Change History?

By Dick Dickerson & Silvia Zawadzki Back to

Mt. Everest, June 8, 1924, 12:50 pm: George Mallory (“because it is there”) and Andrew Irvine are spotted 800 vertical feet below the peak and “going strong for the top.”

Neither climber was ever seen again. Did they perish as they continued their ascent or after having reached the summit, 29 years before the successful climb of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay? An answer—a photograph from the top— may exist in one of the Kodak Vest Pocket Model B cameras the two carried, a “miniature” (for the day) camera that had become very popular with soldiers during World War I. In 1986 Tom Holzel, fascinated by the possibility, organized an expedition led by Andrew Harvard with the express intent of recovering those cameras. The team was eventually defeated by 10 days of continuous blizzards with temperatures of –30°F, 100 mph winds, and an avalanche that cost the life of sherpa Dawa Nuru. Mallory’s body, but not Irvine’s, was subsequently recovered by the Simonson Expedition of 1999, but no cameras were found.

Our role during the ascent in 1986 was to identify a best technique for developing the Kodak NC (Non-Curling) Film, had a camera been recovered—film that would have had 62 years of exposure to extreme cold, severe dehydration, and intense radiation. We were fortunate to obtain for experimentation a roll of identical film, expiration dated March 1, 1926, from Kodak’s Patent Museum. The tin wrapping and wood and metal spool were forwarded to Holzel to better tune his metal detectors. Analysis of the film coupled with a review of archived Kodak literature furnished us with information about the product’s halide content, grain size, silver coverage, and chemical and optical sensitization. ISO speed was estimated from the camera’s construction and exposure recommendations included in its operating instructions. Using a radioactive cobalt source, we had a portion of the f ilm exposed to an amount of radiation deemed equivalent to six decades atop Everest, roughly the same as a roll stored in Rochester would have received had it arrived on the Mayf lower. There was, of course, no way to mimic the actual latent image age and cold storage. Snippets of the f ilm were imaged and subjected to a variety of development protocols.

Our best results derived from development by inspection with a Kodak No. 1 safelight in Kodak Developer D-76 containing 5 mg/l of 5-methylbenzotriazole. Printing the images on a grade 5 paper afforded a density range of 0.3 units, very weak but clearly discernible. Remarkably, the irradiated and unirradiated samples showed little difference in density scale, though the former had a signif icantly higher fog level. Among other developer additives explored were various traditional antifoggants and chemicals capable of enhancing grain-internal latent image (surface latent image could contain appreciably more fog) such as sodium thiocyanate, potassium chloroaurate, mercaptopropionic acid, and others, but none yielded better image discrimination.

As word of our efforts spread, several other rolls of film were donated that had been found, exposed but unprocessed, in old cameras. These ranged from one found some 30 years earlier in a Rochester bedroom to one exposed some 70 years earlier and stored in a presumably very hot attic in Paris. By processing snippets from the edges that extended perhaps a quarter inch into the image area, we were able to explore many more developer variations. Long story short, we did not find any panacea procedure that worked with all old films, but we did make some interesting discoveries along the way.

One or the other of two distinctly different protocols usually yielded the best results. The gentler of the two was to presoak the film for two minutes in a 0.1% solution of potassium iodide followed by development in Kodak Developer D-76. This failed totally with the oldest films that had suffered the worst storage conditions, but the presoak and seven minutes in D-76 gave remarkable results with newer films, one of which yielded images that looked like they had been exposed earlier in the day on freshly manufactured film. The newest telltale we found on this roll was a 1956 Chevy, putting the latent image age at about 30 years.

The second and much more aggressive technique was to use the same potassium iodide prebath followed by development (often for only two or three minutes) in Kodak Rapid X-Ray Developer (KRX) containing an additional 0.5 g/l of potassium iodide. This severely fogged the newer rolls but worked rather well, considering, with the oldest. The frame in the image plane, if any, was consistently the weakest and discrimination always improved from the outside to the inside of the rewind core. One roll in particular, estimated to have been exposed about 1916, displayed images from an ancient amusement park. Although prints on grade 5 paper were still exceedingly flat, faces were clearly recognizable.

But the film of Mallory and Irvine? The world may never know. Readers who would like to learn more about their attempt and subsequent searches for those pioneers and their cameras may enjoy reading The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine, by Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld, Mountaineers Books, 2000 (ISBN 0-89886-726-6).

About the Author

Dick Dickerson & Silvia Zawadzki
Dick Dickerson and Silvia Zawadzki are retired Kodak black-and-white product builders who have authored numerous articles for PT. They can be contacted at Dick and Silvia reside in Rochester, NY.