Photographic negatives produced in the 1930s and 1940s used acetate base material (known as "Safety Film"). In some early acetate negatives, the base material is unstable and shrinks at a more rapid rate than the photographic emulsion. This process (known as "vinegar syndrome" because of its distinctive smell) causes warps and eventually cracks in the emulsion, distorting the images.
Stable environmental conditions and proper storage can delay the effects, but nothing can reverse it.
The Lafayette Studios Collection is the most afflicted portion of the archives. Over 1,000 of its 12,000 negatives are in the advanced stages of vinegar syndrome. Lafayette Studios is the most complete existing record of Lexington in the 1930s and 1940s, and has been used by researchers all over the world.
Traditional printing processes can recover the images off the negative before the advanced stages of distortion. When the warping is extreme and advanced, little of the image can be seen.
In response, the Audio-Visual Archives has turned to digital camera technology. Digital capture of the image off the negative utilizing a copy stand and a lightboard has proven effective. In most cases, 80 - 90% of the original image can be reproduced.
The preservation of the Lafayette Studios Collection is an on-going process. The entire collection is not slated for completion until sometime in 2004.