Lost negatives from a photo shoot with a young Leonardo DiCaprio were recently returned to photographer-turned-filmmaker Alexi Tan thanks to fellow photographers Matthew Salacuse, Henry Leutwyler and Stephane Sednaoui. The series of events that reunited Tan with his missing negatives was triggered by DiCaprio’s Best Actor Academy Award, and involved Instagram and goodwill amongst photographers.
The story of how Tan lost his archive will send chills up the spine of any photographer. Several years ago, Tan was out of the country directing a film when the credit card he used to pay for his Manhattan storage space expired, unbeknownst to him. When payments lapsed, Manhattan Mini Storage auctioned off the contents of Tan’s storage unit and his archive was gone to the highest bidder.
An avid collector of old slides and negatives, Salacuse found Tan’s negatives at a New York City flea market five years ago. “I found three or four packs of 120 negs and I couldn’t believe it,” Salacuse told PDN in an email. “It looked like Basketball Diaries-era Leo. He was smoking and shirtless and badass. The negative packs were all unmarked, but I tried doing an image search and I still found nothing. I asked a few fellow photographers but they had never seen the shoot either.” Around the same time, Leutwyler found other pieces of Tan’s archive at the same flea market and arranged to purchase and return those to Tan via his friend, Stephane Sednaoui. Though Leutwyler recovered prints from the DiCaprio shoot, the negatives were missing, presumably bought by Salacuse.
Earlier this year, Salacuse was offering prints of one of the DiCaprio images on Negative Collection, a site he created in 2009 to sell limited edition prints made from old negatives and slides he discovered. After DiCaprio’s Best Actor Academy Award win this year, Salacuse posted the image on the Negative Collection Instagram feed, where Leutwyler recognized it. The two photographers connected and Salacuse passed the DiCaprio negatives and another set from a shoot with hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan to Leutwyler, who is returning them to Tan, who lives abroad.
“The fact that I was able to retrieve anything from my past negative archives is already an incredible gift,” Tan told PDN in an email. “I am of course happy to find even more.” Tan says he was initially concerned that DiCaprio’s representatives would be upset to see the images offered for sale on Salacuse’s site. “I wasn’t even thinking of my negs,” he says. “Thankfully Matthew was kind enough to return them too, and trusted and had faith in Henry and Stephane that these photos belonged to me.”
Salacuse started Negative Collection after recognizing that others might share his interest in vintage photographs that for one reason or another had been lost or thrown out. “I started collecting old slides and negs about 10 years ago and I had cibachromes made (a processes which no longer exists) for the walls in my apartment,” Salacuse recalls. “Then friends started asking me to make prints for their walls. I realized that it was not just me who appreciated these lost and forgotten-about images that were one step away from being in a landfill.”
Salacuse also hoped that, through the site, he might be able to reunite photographers with their lost negatives and slides. “Since, in my regular life, I am a photographer, finding such beauty under heaps of old clothes at a flea market always tore my heart out,” Salacuse explains. “Someone really cared about this image once and for some reason or another, they lost it. So, often I would try and find the photographer based on any writing on the packet of negatives or hints in the photographs. It is trickier than it sounds.”
After discovering thousands of another photographer’s images at the same flea market, Salacuse recalls, he was able to track him down. The photographer was amazed, Salacuse says—he’d just thrown the negatives out the previous week.
“I am so pleased that someone who knew [Tan’s] work spotted it on my Instagram account so now the images can be finally returned to Mr. Tan,” Salacuse says. “This is the best possible outcome for an image put on my site.”