Worthless, But Priceless: The Lure of Photographic Negatives

Posted by Allison Radomski on

If you’ve spent this much time browsing the HIP collection and digging into its many gems, you’re probably a lot like us. At HIP, we get pretty jazzed about the prospect of building a killer collection of photographic negatives, and we’re excited to draw you into our addiction. For all of our fellow negative nerds out there, we have good news and bad news.

The good news? History in Photographs is a collection of over 50,000 photographic negatives, and as we continue to plumb the depths of our sprawling collection, we’re going to be sharing our favorite finds right here with you. And, if our work inspires you to start a collection of your own, negatives are relatively cheap to buy. You can usually purchase dozens of them for less than $30 online or at estate sales.

The bad news? Negatives are pretty much worthless (hence the dirt-cheap price point), especially compared to the prices you’ll see for vintage photographic prints.

When I first dove into the world of collecting, the (relatively) valueless nature of negatives blew my mind, and it required some explaining. After I sat down to hear an expert’s opinion, the situation made a bit more sense.

Think of it this way: A negative is only half of the photographic process. While snapping a picture requires a wide range of artistic choices, like composition and exposure, the darkroom process requires a whole different set of artistic decisions, and those decisions play an equally crucial role in a photograph’s final presentation. In other words, producing a decent negative is just the beginning.

The darkroom process is also special because it reflects the photographer’s own preferences about their work. A photographer takes many, many photographs before they get to that one masterful shot, and a final print is the product of all that artistic trial and error. Because a photographic print is the summation of so many judgments on the photographer’s part, it has more value than a glut of negatives that are probably of varying quality. A print represents the best of the best, which is why it has so much value. (If you want to know more about the value of negatives and hear a professional perspective on photo collecting, you should definitely check out my interview with fine art appraiser, Jane Cofer.)

These explanations certainly make sense to me, but even so, I just can’t shake my desire to collect negatives.

Quite frankly, I blame my schooling. In the world of film studies, scholars and critics love to pick apart the concept of the photographic index, and when I went to college, I fell in love with those discussions. The index is how we describe a photograph’s relationship to the real world. A photograph is special because its creation requires the existence of an actual object or individual who once stood before the camera’s lens. Just as a footprint is a trace of the one who once walked along a certain stretch of beach, or a spinning weathervane is a trace of the wind, so too is a photographic image a trace of what once was, an imprint of the real created by chemistry and light (you can thank Charles Sanders Peirce for those poetic comparisons).

Of course, the concept of the photographic index gets complicated for all kinds of reasons (and believe me, the facets of that discussion stray well beyond the scope of this particular post). However, in spite of photography’s many evolutions and interpretive frameworks, the photograph still manages to have an irrepressible connection to our sense of reality. Even in our digital era, at a time when the extent of image manipulation seems more obvious than ever, a photograph still has the power to jar us, shock us, spur us to action.

For me, the photograph’s alluring (and illusive) relationship to reality is why I get so excited about negatives, even if most collectors and dealers don’t feel the same way. A negative has a tactile, physical quality that seems so emotionally charged, so full of power as a potential witness to our world. There’s something thrilling to me about carefully unspooling a roll of film or delicately inspecting a glass plate. It’s the physicality that does it for me, a sensation of superhuman, time-defying power, like saving a footprint from the shifting sand or holding onto the wind. Photographs may not be as transparent as we like to believe, but even so, that myth, that promise of hanging onto what once was and the seductive, swelling conviction that I have the power to see the world clearly -- all of those emotions stir up my love of negatives.

That said, I harbor other personal reasons for loving the material pleasures of a negative. In addition to my work at HIP, I’m a filmmaker, and I love to work with 16mm film. Something about the tactile experience of film makes me feel so deeply connected to the photographic artists who came before me. When I load the magazine of a 16mm camera or develop my own stills in my kitchen sink, I think about all the great filmmakers who have done the same.

If those warm fuzzies are lost on you, consider the artists who are doing really excellent work with reappropriated negatives. One of my favorites is Linda Connor, who has created radiant prints of the night sky from glass plate negatives that were originally made at the Lick Observatory in the late nineteenth century. Andreas Olesen is another artist who utilizes the infinite artistic potential of a good negative. Their work demonstrates that a negative has all kinds of value if you know what to do with it.

Besides, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the often strange and always exciting world of collecting, it’s that objects have value because we say so. Photographic negatives may not be all the rage now, but that doesn’t have to stop us from turning them into the next big thing.

Still not convinced that it’s worth your time to collect negatives? Check out what HIP’s founder, Will Seippel, has to say about it. Of course, we’re more than a little biased on this particular topic, but that doesn’t stop us from having a great time.





Charles Sanders Peirce, The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings. Vol. 1. Ed. Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel. Bloomington: Indiana up, 1992.


For a brief introduction of the concept of the photographic index, we recommend this piece by Mary Ann Doane. 


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