The "Mexican Suitcase" is not a suitcase at all, but three vintage boxes of film. It was given this moniker in 1995 when it was first known that the contents of the suitcase that Robert Capa had apparently given in around 1939 to his darkroom technician, Csiki Weiss, were found in Mexico City. Any suitcase is now lost. What remains is one Agfa paper box (8x10 inches), which contains envelopes of film labeled on the outside as to maker and subject, and two commercial boxes with faux leather tops, one red, one green (11x14 inches), that hold rolls of 35mm film. Quadrants on the top of the interiors have been drawn and in each square the subject of the corresponding film is labeled. This kind of negative storage box was frequently used in the 1930s, as it was a more efficient way to storing film than in envelopes or notebooks.
On February 8, 2008, Grant Romer, Director of the Advanced Residency Program for Photographic Conservation at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and Michael Hagar, of Museum Photographics, visited ICP to inspect the Mexican Suitcase. Together they determined that the film was in relatively good condition. It was not brittle and did not show any extreme deterioration that would immediately destroy the image. They did not recommend any conservation work or chemical cleaning. Because the film is in such good condition, any liquid treatment may actually cause more problems than it would solve. As for doctors, a conservator's motto is (or should be) "First, do no harm."
Most of the film is nitrate-based, which makes it prone to degradation if poorly stored, and in some conditions there is even the possibility of spontaneous combustion. Because of the relatively dry and stable climate of Mexico City, where we believe the negatives have been for almost seventy years, the film has not experienced any extreme changes in environment that could exacerbate deterioration. In addition, the porous cardboard boxes in which the negatives were housed allowed for some air circulation, and thus did not trap toxic gas from the nitrate film.
Romer and Hagar recommended that ICP scan all of the film using a custom-built film carrier that would support the various lengths of the vintage film.
The PFD2 | PFD2 Instruction Manual PDF
A team from the George Eastman House developed a film holder that would allow for the digital capture of each frame of the rolled film. It required a design that would both hold the film flat enough so as not to get image distortion, but gentle enough so as not to damage the film. The project was developed under the supervision of Grant Romer with Mirasol Estrada, Inés Toharia Terán and Arnold VanDenburgh.
After several months of research, they devised the Planar Film Duplicating Device (PFD2). It was specifically designed to safely flatten film that has been tightly rolled. The fabrication materials were chosen for their neutral properties and the entire design based on minimal handling of the film artifact. The rolled film feeds gently into one side of the devise and stretches across the Anti-Newton glass plate. The film is stabilized by thin glass plates along the sprockets. The film is illuminated by a light box from below and the camera is secured on a copy stand above.
Chris George, ICP Imaging Technician, has photographed all of the rolled film using the PFD2. He worked with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III camera hooked up to an Apple computer, exposing the film at f16 at 1/6 second, capturing the raw file images, and then converting them to DNG files with Adobe DNG converter. The DNG files are 40 MB. All of the cut flat film was scanned using a Nikon 9000 scanner.
ICP is tremendously grateful to Canon for loaning the high resolution camera for this work. The PFD2 project would not have been possible without the support of the Advanced Residency Program in Photography Conservation at the George Eastman House and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Photo of Grant Romer at ICP by Nicolas Silberfaden