Detective work and restoration work fills gaps in unique Czech historical archive

Archiv mit Glasnegativen

Langhans photographic gallery is currently celebrating the 130th anniversary since the original studio, which became the most famous in the country, was founded in the centre of Prague in 1880. A fraction of the million and a half negatives that were built up there over the following seven decades now forms a valuable pictorial archive which is still being worked on and conserved for the future by a specially created foundation. We look at the archive, ongoing restoration and future plans.

Langhans archive
The rediscovery of 9,000 photographic negatives from the Langhans studio archive of famous people was a sort of Tutankhamun moment for the world of Czech photographic history. It was the discovery of an unexpected treasure trove thought to have been lost in history.

Those negatives, covered with around a centimetre of dust and grease, are all that remained of the biggest private photographic archive in the country that once totalled around 1.5 million negatives. Most of these were destroyed and dumped on the outskirts of Prague in 1951 or 1952 by the Communist authorities as part of their moves to wipe out the bourgeois past. The studio founded by 29-year-old Jan Langhans had already been nationalised by 1949.

But some prescient individual hid a small part of the archive, taken from the so-called gallery of celebrities, in a locked cabinet at the site of the central Prague studio just off Wenceslas Square on Vodičková Street. The hiding place was a small cupboard on a corridor on the way to the coal furnaces used on site. It was only discovered in 1998 when construction work began on the site after restitution of the building to descendants of the studio’s founder. It was proclaimed a minor miracle at the time.

Jan Langhans, photo: Langhans archive
The negatives that were found for the most part look like a local who’s who of the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the establishment of Czechoslovakia and flowering of the First Republic. This was the golden age of portrait photography and anyone who was anyone seemed to want a portrait taken at Langhans’ Prague studios or outposts in other towns. These included a booming summer studio for the rich spa visitors to Mariánské Lázneě or Marienbad during its prime before WWI. There were other branches of the Prague atelier in Plzeň, Hradec Králové, and České Budějovice. Glass negatives continued to be used up to the start of WWII but the fashion for formal portraits began to fade out as the 20th century advanced.

Helpfully, many of the negatives were found in cardboard boxes with the name of the person and date of the sitting written on them. The negatives have now been sorted out into categories and are stored at around 16 degrees Celsius and a moisture content of 50 percent, the ideal conditions for conservation.

Iva Poláková is head of restoration work at the gallery.

“The people are divided into around a dozen categories. For example there are actors and singers, politicians, musicians, writers, legionaries, inventors and architects, judges, civil servants and industrialists, members of the church, foreigners, and academicians and scientists. At the time, people were selected for being what we might now term as celebrities. For example there was the actress (Lída) Baarová, (Ljuba) Hermanová and politicians such as (Karel) Kramář, T.G Masaryk and (Edvard) Beneš. There are foreigners from the whole of the diplomatic corps present here as well as academicians and scientists from the universities of the First Republic.”

Lída Baarová, photo: Langhans archive
But in spite of the helpful labelling, not much is known about 30 percent of the portrait subjects apart from their basic details. That has led the gallery to call up a barrage of experts to help in the detective work. Iva Poláková again: “We have chosen experts from various fields. Experts in military history have helped us with some themes, experts from the Theatre Institute, experts on politics, including our historical collaborator Derek Paton, and people from these spheres of activity. It is expertise which is trustworthy and can be relied on.”

There is another problem regarding the condition of some of the negatives. Surprising as it may seem, the secret storage for around half a century in what was little more than a cupboard did not do as much harm as might have been expected. But some are nonetheless in a sorry state.

Martina Fornůsková carries out restoration on the damaged negatives and describes the task faced following their discovery in the makeshift cupboard hideaway.

Although Czech, she now lives most of the time in Switzerland, and is more comfortable speaking in French about her uncommon craft. “In this cellar in summer it was incredibly hot in the cupboard and in the winter terribly cold and the moisture content was up and down. But thanks to the varnish on the gelatin emulsion the negatives were protected. That is to say that of the say 9,000 negatives we have there are around three percent that are really degraded. Otherwise they are really in good shape. But the case of the broken negatives is another thing. It is really ourselves that broke them, not us the restorers, but people who handled them without the proper care.”

Langhans Prague atelier, photo: Langhans archive
Gelatin glass photographic plates started to take off around the time Langhans Prague gallery was founded. They were a huge advance on the previous cumbersome technology but still tricky to use and prepare. The sitter had to remain motionless for minutes to get the perfect result and lighting without any artificial light in the early years was a complicated and problem fraught process.

Restoration work for a negative broken into two or more pieces can be carried out in a few hours. But for the more complex cases, the worst being when the gelatin on the negatives seem to split and curl up like dried leaves, are much more demanding. Martina Fornůsková says the type of damage falls into three main categories.

“The first case is when the negative is broken, but just perhaps in two or three pieces. After that there are the cases where they are smashed and just slivers of glass. And the last, and most difficult to repair, are negatives where the emulsion is coming away. But we cannot really say that this is down to degradation. It is really a more basic problem to do with the initial production. When these gelatin negatives were produced the glass had to be prepared. A chemical product was put on the glass so that the gelatin stuck. But when this product was put on badly we find the gelatin now comes off. But we can’t say it is down to moisture in the air or the temperature. It was a fundamental problem.”

Langhans gallery
The solution for these cases where the gelatin peels away is painstakingly replacing them on special non-acidic paper mounts and, when the work is finished, putting them back in so-called glass sandwiches.

Martina Fornůsková works part time on restoration work at Langhans photographic gallery and points out that the type of work she is doing is specialized and quite rare. Cleaning and restoring old photographs seems to have much in common with the process for old paintings, it is painstaking and care needs to be taken that chemical contamination or other damage does not take place.

“In the Czech Republic we don’t really have photographic restorers. It is very rare. I must say that there is only one that is competent but it should be said that he is the best in the whole of Europe. He is really precise, really talented and all the work he does is really impeccable. He is my teacher, František Sysel.”

The first major exhibition of the rediscovered photos took place at Prague’s Rudolfinum in 2000. This has been followed by smaller thematic exhibitions at the gallery itself. Most of the portraits can also be seen online at the gallery’s web site. As negatives are restored and detective work fleshes out who are the subjects of some of the photos, more thematic exhibitions will follow. Iva Poláková again:

Langhans archive today, photo: Langhans archive
“Gradually, we will allow the public to see all of the negatives. There will be thematic exhibitions which, for example, have already featured musicians and actors. A new exhibition features politicians that have not been put on show before. The plan is to restore and clean all of the negatives, everything will be scanned and put in storage and opened up to the public through exhibitions and publications.”

The restoration and detective work is set to continue well into this decade with digitalisation of the negatives another step in the ongoing process.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on December 1, 2010.