Snow scene with parked cars in Chicago Illinois ca. 1940.

Save those negatives. You never know…

By Doug Anderson

When I started taking pictures at about age 8 my mother and I would take the roll of Verichrome Pan I shot with my Kodak Brownie 127 to Walgreens and in a few days would go back to pick up the envelope containing the little deckle edge glossy prints. The negatives were in the envelope too but I wasn’t particularly interested in them. Later, at home when I had the little prints spread out on the kitchen table my father would invariably say, “save those negatives. you never know” or words to that effect. He had been an enthusiastic amateur photographer before WWII and it turns out he knew what he was talking about.

Soon after I took those first pictures our family began a long series of house moves that were disruptive enough to put an end to my early efforts with photography. And, sadly, many of those early prints and the envelopes containing the negatives were lost somewhere along the way.

Motel in Cheyenne Wyoming 1945.
Cheyenne Wyoming 1945

The third of the three high schools I attended was close enough to New York City that I was able to take the New York Central into the city to visit the museums. In addition to the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art I took my mother’s advice and visited the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street. It was the first time I had seen photographs treated as serious works of art. I started taking pictures again, mostly with an old pawn shop Rolleiflex but also occasionally with my father’s 35mm Certo Dollina. I had the negatives developed and printed by a local camera shop, and I took care to put the negatives safely away.

New York City 14th Street ca. 1970.
NYC 14th Street ca. 1970

When the family moved again I stayed behind in the New York City area and eventually moved to the New Jersey shore where I have lived and continued taking pictures for the past 50+ years. I had a darkroom for a few years but I found it too time consuming and switched first to shooting slides and then to digital in about the year 2000. After about ten years of that I found I missed shooting film and started shooting Ilford XP2 film and having it developed and scanned at Walgreens. Sound familiar?

Bicyclist in Newark NJ ca. 1972. Don't Walk pedestrian signal.
Newark NJ ca. 1972

But this time I was making my own inkjet prints at home. All was well until October 29 2012 when Superstorm Sandy knocked out the power on the Jersey Shore for weeks and the Walgreens photo department never recovered. I got my old film developing equipment out of the basement, bought a Canoscan 9000F, and began the hybrid film/digital photography I continue to this day.Along with scanning and printing my new negatives I went back in time and started scanning and making “contact pages” of all of my old negatives going back to the early 1960’s. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the extended family decided that I should be the caretaker of my father’s negatives dating back to the mid 1930’s. I enjoy rescanning my older negatives and my father’s and making inkjet prints for the family and friends. And I have lots and lots of negatives to choose from.

Tarpon Springs Florida 2011
Tarpon Springs Florida 2011

Thinking ahead, none of my children or grandchildren have shown an interest in my negatives and it would be easy to assume that my working with them is a dead end. But I had no particular interest in my father’s negatives while he was living but if he had not saved them I would not have the photograph below of myself as an infant with my grandparents. It hangs on my workroom wall.

Me with grandparents. Photo taken by my father in 1944.
Me with grandparents 1944.

So my personal plan, and my advice to film photographers remains the same. Save those negatives. You never know.

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About The Author

By Doug Anderson
I am a retired telecom engineer. I started shooting film when I was about 8 years old. 70+ years later I am still at it, using a variety of older battery-free 35mm and MF film cameras (the newest is 40 years old). I develop and scan the negatives myself, and make inkjet prints to share with family and friends. My favorite subjects these days are nature, architecture and machinery.
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Comments

John Bennett on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Great advice, Doug. Some of the old, once-reliable drug stores no longer return negatives with the prints they make.
Pity.

Speciality darkrooms do, of course, but I have heard that some clients say. "Oh, just toss those." What? Pity, too.

Once you get the hang of developing & scanning at home, it's fun and not that much work.

And you have complete control over your negatives!
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

I was surprised at first when I heard that some labs were not returning the negatives. But many people sending their film out for developing and scanning these days grew up with digital and never appreciated the value of a physical negative I agree about developing and scanning at home. It is indeed fun and not that much work, but also can save a lot of money over time.

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James E. Langmesser on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

My age and path through photography mirrors yours. I was fortunate to have a superb lab nearby which for decades developed my negatives/slides, then later put them on CD's when that technology emerged. I had all the negatives from the family grouped by decade, from the thirties forward, in many different film sizes and 8mm B&W films from the late forties, took them all to the lab, and had them scanned and put on CD's. I have these loaded on two PCs and memory sticks, as well as having the original negatives. I too have experienced no family interest in these pictures, but I did the scanning for my wife's and my own pleasure. Apres moi...whatever. My wife and my photography is entirely separate from the "family" pictures, and is, as yours, in negatives, and scans. But hold onto those negatives. This was the advice from the photo lab.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

And that's why Heinz makes 57 varieties :-) I have no confidence in the long term viability of visual images. I develop my own negatives and scan them to make physical "contact pages" and physical prints. I save the negatives with the thought that someone else might find them useful. I keep the originals of the scans because memory is essentially free but I don't bother backing them up and have no expectation that anyone will ever have any interest in looking at them.

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Jeffery Luhn on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Doug, your story is so very familiar to me. Just replace NYC with San Francisco and we are two peas in a pod! I want to make a suggestion to you that I'm doing with my tens of thousands of images: I organize the scans into files and folders with my kids, nephews, and grandchildren's names. I've sent them usb flash drives with those files. I also send them prints of themselves once in a while. My hope is that if they know there are good photos of themselves in the files, they'll find value in them. Along with my files and folders, I've inserted scans from my parents and grandparents. Hopefully, some will survive the eons! Keep going, Doug! Thanks for your article. I look forward to seeing more shots!
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

I expect it is because of my age, but I have no confidence in digital images. I use the scans of the negatives to make physical "contact pages" and prints. As long as I have the negatives it would not bother me at all if all of the scans were lost.

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Jeffery Luhn replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

None of my family would know what to do with negatives. They'd be tossed. The digital files are a good solution for my family because they are searchable. Several of the kids have gone through their files and done assignments for school, made prints for their room, etc. I think the motivation for them is knowing there are good photos of them. The digital files are easy to access.

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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Yes, for now the digital files are easy to access. But what about 20 or 30 years down the road? Today's SD cards will have been long superseded. What would your kids today make of a floppy disk of photos taken in the year 2000, or even an 8 MB CF card?

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Jeffery Luhn replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Doug, You are right, but not 100%. CD ROMS, VHS tapes, hard drives, and other mechanical devices will fail for sure, but SSD and other passive items will be okay if adaptors are purchased. Electronic backups with no moving parts, especially USB, will be viewable for the foreseeable future. Our electrical appliance plugs have no moving parts and they have been around for 100 years and will continue for a long time. I have about 40,000 images on negatives, and I'm quite sure no family member will know how, or want to rummage through that stuff. They can't recognize the contents of a negative. Only about 50% of my negatives have attached contact sheets. That's a lot of work ahead of me to make contact prints. More to to point, and this is critically important: Physical negatives can only go to one person. That person will move, have moisture damage in their basement, downsize, end up in a rest home, and die. End of my legacy. Digitizing and distribution in searchable file formats is the best way for my 10 nieces/nephews, 5 grandchildren, and friends to have access to my work. They have gotten lots of images on their own. Even my 11-year-old granddaughters. Everyone knows there are good photos of them in those files. That is a critical strategy for preservation. Jeffery

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Ralph Turner on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Fantastic images of times gone by, Doug. The one of you with your Grandparents looks so good it could have been taken yesterday. There's a lot to be said for the hybrid workflow. Sound advice, too, regarding those precious negatives. Thank you for sharing
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Thank you for the kind words. My father was an excellent photographer. Every time I look through his contact prints I see more images I want to print.

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Malcolm Myers on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Quite the divisive topic nowadays! Especially when postal labs are putting scans online and charging to return your negatives.

I keep all my negatives, but I am trying to store them more efficiently, especially those that are not that important, as they do take up a lot of space in binders. I am slowly trying to scan everything, but it will take several years to finish (it's not a priority yet). Hopefully I have a few decades left before I shuffle off, so I should get it all done in time for my children to ... mostly ignore them I suspect!

My main aim now is to create USB sticks of film and digital scans and give them to the subjects NOW, rather than hope that someone will go through my archive when I'm gone and sort them all out. Because that won't happen.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Putting the digital files in the hands of the subjects now is an interesting idea. I just can't picture any looking through my computer looking for pictures when I am gone.

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Jukka Reimola on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

It's funny how I seem to always have something in my eye, when I look at my decades old photos. It definitely is worth saving the negs for posterity.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

We never know what someone might find meaningful in our photographs as time passes. In a late 19th century album of photos of my wife's family there is a picture of an elaborate wedding cake that fascinates our friends who bake.

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Art Meripol on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

What a wonderful read and excellent reminder. At a basic level I have some of the same experiences. I wish I had all the negatives from my past. But I do still have quite a few. One set of images, shot for a college photo class in 1972 became a gallery show a couple years ago. Amazing how old those photos look, a time long gone. My favorite of the many wonderful shots in your story has to be NYC 1970. It just feels so right. Because I'm a photog I too was delegated to have all the family archives. Many of the prints I'd seen but I found a trove of old odd size negatives and digitized them . They're amazing, another facet of the family history. Sadly the current generation really doesn't care yet. Maybe when they're older. Meanwhile your wonderful post has inspired me to write up my version. Thank you.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Thank you for the kind words. I look forward to reading your contribution.

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Abdrew on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Or in my case, save those old Kodachrome transparencies that your dad took. They scan beautifully and can easily be shared with family, even if they never go through a projector again…..
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Old Kodachromes are indeed fascination. We have a hundred or so 35mm Kodachrome slides of my parents trip from Illinois to California in the days just before WWII. Sadly my efforts at shooting 35mm slides involved. Anscochrome which has not aged gracefully. Rather that trying to recover the colors I have scanned a number of them as B&W.

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Andrew replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

And in fact, one should probably say don’t put those old Kodachrome slides through a projector again! The heat and light involved isn’t going to do the colour dyes any good and only hasten degradation. Much better to digitise and display using a digital projector if you want to show them to an audience…..

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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

I agree it's probably a good idea. I still have memories of the movie theater projector jamming and watching the stalled film melt on the big screen.

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Terry Tsang on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

What a wonderful story / piece of advice! Thanks for sharing!

I've been saving all my negatives in paper sleeves and digitising everything and getting them all labelled correctly so I know where they came from. Although it can be a laborious task it's actually been quite fulfilling.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Looking through the old images, even the fairly recent ones, can be very enjoyable.

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Roger on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Great pictures and I agree that old ones should be preserved, partly as we don’t know what we will find interesting several years from now (my first 35mmc post was on that). However, it is not so clear whether we should keep negatives if we are keeping high resolution scans of them. That way of thinking was why I embarked on a project of trying to do high resolution scans of all my old negatives, and my father’s and my grandparents’, so I could get rid of the negatives. With my grandparents’, I still think that was right, because negatives going back to the 1920s and 1920s have deteriorated and will no doubt deteriorate further, but the scans will stay the same (so long as they remain properly backed up, of course). No sense in keeping them. Not long ago, I would have said the same about my own negatives too, but I am changing my mind for the simple reason that I impulsively decided to try darkroom printing again, so long as I could do it at reasonable cost (I decided it had to be less than the cost of a single set of ink cartridges, and I am on track for that, so long as I exclude consumables). And so, Doug, after a spell of thinking differently, I am back to agreeing with what you say here, though in my case I think I will be more selective about which old negatives I keep, as some were never worth keeping.

Thanks for a thoughtful post.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

I have no confidence in the long term viability of digital images. At the same time I agree that the deterioration of old negatives is an issue. A number of years ago I made contact copy negatives of my father's nitrate (nitrocellulose) negatives. I did dispose of the nitrate negatives as a safety matter. Fortunately my safety film (cellulose acetate) negatives, even those from the 1940's, remain printable but I know that they are not forever. But I do believe that my current negatives would still be printable by my great grandchildren.

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David Dutchison on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Loved the piece, and the pictures.

There's one more thing about negatives. If you ever find yourself in the unpleasant position of seeing one of your images being used without your approval or consent (a not uncommon occurrence these days), possession of the physical negative is a pretty solid terminator of the argument in your favour.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Thank you for the kind words. Sadly, it would not be difficult to make a high resolution inkjet print of an image in question and photograph it with a film camera to producing a convincing "original" negative.

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Marcus Gunaratnam on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 11/07/2024

I loved the photos and they are highly evocative.In the 1970s, I used to take B&W photos of weddings with a friend who had a Nikon Photomic T with a short Nikon zoom and they were all in colour,using Ektachrome or Kodachrome transparency film which had to be sent away to melbourne for processing(frequently lost or sent elsewhere,so much so that my friend used to take a snap shot of his business card as the first shot on each roll.I on the otherhand used an Olympus Pen FT with an F1.8 38mm standard lens with a electronic flash made by sunpak off 4 aa batteries later modified to take a latern battery to avoid changing batteries during the wedding ceremony.I mainly used Ilford FP3film or bulk loaded Du pont cine film.Processed by me in Neofin blue ,in a Paterson tank with 35mm reels (having practised loading the film by touch.and thechemicals filtered and temperature controlled using an aquarium heater'modified'after having communicated with a gent from Ilford in UK, who kindly sent over a time/temperature graph.)So my negs were superb in quality and I was able to use a durst enlarger suitably 'earthed',to remove static and the enlager clamped to avoid vibration artefact,and a el -nikkor lens and a 'mask' for half frame made from cardboard.The meticulous attention to detail paid off in that we were able to provide the newly married couple 8x10 inch photos which were of quality,contrary to usual practice I gave the negs away in a folder,unlike the others who held on to the negatives for more orders ,and even threatened to distroy the negsafter a set period.So negatives along with contact proofs,and 8x10s were given to the couple,72 exposures in roll gave ample opportunity to take representative photos of all who attended the wedding and they could get them processed anywhere.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 11/07/2024

Hopefully some of your clients appreciated your giving them the negatives and hung on to them too.

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Myles on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 11/07/2024

Great photos and article Doug.

I'm one for keeping negatives, the rare occasions I have a film lab developed and scanned I always pay the extra to get the negs back. I more often use a lab for dev & print and then a scan as well who always send the negs back with the prints. Neg storage does get difficult and I should be more ruthless in throwing out those home developed B&W negs that are as good as ruined due to camera faults or my fault in the developing process - it would save some space in the ring binders.

We have various memory cards and HDD backs up of digital camera family snap shots which I can't see being a long term solution (I must look at a better storage solution for these!). As one of the above replies said giving digital copies now to the people that matter to us is a good idea and I've being doing this over the last few years.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 11/07/2024

You are right about the long term storage issue. An acquaintance asked if I could make prints of the some pictures on a floppy disk. I haven't had any way to read a floppy disk for many years.

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Steviemac on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 11/07/2024

A thoroughly enjoyable read, and a salutary reminder to us all that we are in many ways the curators of our lifetime, for the benefit of future generations. You're descendants may not show much interest now, but will likely do so in the future. It's the everyday that really piques interest, not the well known work of professionals. We may admire and be inspired by the professionals, but it's that which is relatable which really fires the imagination. If you were to visit a stately home in the UK, you'd find all the details of the lives of the great and good laid out for you. On every visit I've made, I have noticed that it's the 'below stairs' aspect that people want to know and understand, as that's what they can relate to. I bet Vivian Maier never envisaged what would become of all those images she took.
We live in a strange time when what were once certainties have become a battleground for revisionists, often with an ulterior and malign intent. Terms such as post truth (a non sequitur if ever there was one) have now gained traction in every facet of life. There's nothing like an original record of something, especially a photograph, for debunking those more outlandish notions and keeping a balanced sense of reality.
So, to me you are a hero, even if you've never thought of yourself as such. In your own small way you're preserving that which was lost or forgotten. Long may you continue your work.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 11/07/2024

Thank you for the kind words!

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Bill Brown on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 11/07/2024

Doug, There seem to be many of us like-minded photo enthusiast/ family photo curators. Like many of the other responders I'm in the process of scanning and printing images from my 50+ year archive. Not all negs survived but I still have prints that can scanned as needed. I just reached out to the daughter of a dear friend who passed away about 15 years ago. He had given me some of his negs to keep and curate when we photographed high school football games in 1981. I had self-processed the film after the games and print filed them. His daughter now has three young children who never had the chance to know their grandpa and I am having a lab scan and contact print those negs so she can select images for printing. I also just printed three photos from my Dad's archive for a cousin who is losing his eyesight. They are photos of he and his sister with their grandpa from 1942 &49. They are photos he has never seen that he would love to have and enjoy while his sight remains.

Over the coming decades I think the images that will last are the ones where the physical negative or slide still exist. Non-techi types (family members) will not go to the work of figuring out how to migrate all the digital files to current technology. I am personally struggling with this very thing concerning all the scanned and prepped images I have completed since 2007. I have terabytes of Lacie rugged drives that need to be moved to new current USB-C/thunderbolt connectivity. My wife and daughter won't do it that's for sure. The key to longevity for images is to place them in as many different hands as possible just as one commenter said he is doing.

Someone has to look beyond the next instagram post and that will be all of us 'old timers' holding on to our outdated ways and tech. To use a couple phrases from our day "Hang in there" and "Keep on truckin' ". Thanks for the story.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 11/07/2024

When we moved into our last house in 1972 I found a glass negative of a young man in what looked like a WWI era army uniform. The newspaper it was wrapped in had part of an article about the capture of John Dillinger! (The house was built in 1915 and occupied by the same family until 1948.) Obviously, when I saw the negative I knew exactly what it was. What would someone in the year 2114 make of an SD card of photographs I left behind in our current house?

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Ibraar Hussain on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 12/07/2024

Wonderful essay and photographs
Thank you
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 12/07/2024

I am very glad you enjoyed them.

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Bob Dungan on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 13/07/2024

I too have boxes of negatives. A few yeas back I found a shoe box of old negatives from my wife's family that stretched from 1940's to the 60;s. I scanned them all (about 400). I have printed the best and circulated them in the family. My wife and her sister remember them, but no one knows where most of the prints went (about 99% of prints were lost over time). I agree save the negatives.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 13/07/2024

That was the case with my father's pictures too. I have over twenty 36-ecposure rolls of negatives and exact one original print!

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Thomas Slatin ️‍ on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 13/07/2024

I was born and raised in NYC, less than a block away from 14th street. It looked like this when I was a little girl. Today it's simply unrecognizable from the way it used to be. It's amazing how much things change.
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Doug Anderson replied:

Comment posted: 13/07/2024

My wife grew up in the neighborhood too. The last time we were there the Con Edison building was the only thing she recognized.

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Alexander Seidler on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 14/07/2024

Beautiful story Doug !
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Joseph Irvin on Save those negatives. You never know…

Comment posted: 14/07/2024

It's good advice! Sadly my parents didn't often save negatives but I found a few recently and rescanned them, they definitely hold up despite being nearly 30 years old.
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