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News & Insight

This Is The Nuclear Bunker Preserving Film History From The Inside Out

By Justin Heyes on October 13th 2016

Nitrate film base was the first plasticized base commercially available, thanks to John Carbutt, Hannibal Goodwin, and Eastman Kodak, with the first nitrate film available for sale in 1889. Unfortunately, nitrate had one major drawback: it is extremely flammable.


Film nitrate burns three times faster than paper and it was so dangerous you could not even bring a film roll on a public bus. Being essentially the same chemical composition as nitrocellulose (gun powder), nitrate film would decompose after several years into a flammable gas and a goo-like substrate. To think that people used to store them in the attics or basements is beyond me.

At the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia, the Library of Congress has 124 vaults of Nitrate Film in an area originally designed in the Cold War to withstand a nuclear blast. At the bunker, Archivist George Willeman oversees this most dangerous of visual mediums.


The underground vaults contain nearly 90 miles of underground shelving and some (like the Nitrate vaults) are kept at temperatures below freezing. The Audio-Visual Conservation Center is the largest nitrate storage facility in the Western hemisphere. For those interested in digital media, the Conservation Center stores content at the petabyte level. Check it out.

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Justin Heyes wants to live in a world where we have near misses and absolute hits; great love and small disasters. Starting his career as a gaffer, he has done work for QVC and The Rachel Ray Show, but quickly fell in love with photography. When he’s not building arcade machines, you can find him at local flea markets or attending car shows.

Explore his photographic endeavors here.

Website: Justin Heyes
Instagram: @jheyesphoto

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