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Vinegar Syndrome

By Eliza Levinson

Vinegar syndrome — A condition afflicting analog film which has begun to decay, the telltale sign of which is a distinct smell of vinegar.

People who work with analog film—the shiny black physical film strips that need to be expertly wound into wheezing, broken-knobbed cameras—will tell you that it is different from digital image capture in every way. People who love analog film, who insist on tracking down ephemeral film stocks and rescuing clunky machinery from the brink of extinction, will insist that there is something simply other; just different about physical film. And, for the sake of disclosure: I’m one of those people.

Analog film is marked by its fragility and scarcity as much as by its brilliant colors, gauzy blurring, and deep contrasts. I love the way analog film warps the world—turning its colors sweet, soft, and saturated. I love the way sound recorded on analog film cracks and murmurs like it’s coated in fuzz. I love that analog is not easy.

For all the ways digital images make the world clean, compact, and instantly presentable, analog film offers messy chemicals and strong smells. An iPhone image is captured quickly and painlessly with a single finger, but analog images are full-body labor. Feeling around in the dark to unspool slick film, to rock trays of developing chemistry back and forth, and stretching upward to clothespin dripping film to a string until it dries. And unlike their digital counterparts, analog images are memories you can touch, tape into albums and diaries, misplace, and rediscover. They’re not just physical, but alive—and like all living things, they age.

In the early 20th century, film projectors had a tendency to catch fire. Celluloid film was the norm even though it was essentially made of solid nitroglycerin and liable to catch fire at any moment. In response, safety motion picture film—a triacetate film stock designed to be inflammable—took over as the most common form of motion picture film in the 1950s. It doesn’t catch fire, but there is a tradeoff. It ages. And it ages in a particular way unforeseen at the time—all triacetate film stocks eventually develop vinegar syndrome. 

The symptoms of vinegar syndrome vary, but include warping, shrinking, color loss, and, notably, a strong smell of vinegar. While working on this piece, numerous film preservationists even told me they enjoyed the smell of vinegar syndrome. Sometimes, these films become so damaged that they are completely or partially lost—so physically mutated or brittle that they will no longer function in a film projector. Other times, these films produce magic beyond the olfactory—displaying strange and unpredictable visual effects of disintegration as the chemicals of the film come to life once more.

The images here include examples of archival films with vinegar syndrome and still images from my own super-8 work. As a homemade homage to vinegar syndrome, I created an experimental developer made of apple cider vinegar, apples, vitamin C powder, and laundry detergent and processed my film in buckets. By doing so, I replicated the image decay and abstraction that comes from authentic vinegar syndrome. I’m not sure how long my apple cider vinegar film images will last on their small reel, but it's nice to imagine my film smelling like vinegar from home-processed start to musty, moldy finish. 

A version of this article originally appeared in Acid League Magazine Volume 1.

Eliza Levinson is an artist and writer based in Berlin. Her written work has been featured in publications including The Nation, ArtReview, and Hyperallergic.

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