“Creating digital surrogates for 10,000 negatives will facilitate improved access and significantly reduce the impact on the original negatives. The newly digitised material will also provide inspiration for our activities. A digital master archive image will be produced at a high resolution which will minimize the need for subsequent rescanning and retains the maximum amount of data. This RAW mastered file will be immediately archived.”
Photographic negatives hold far more image information than the resulting print. There is a far greater range of grey tones, and the photographer chooses how much or how little of this information is to be made visible in the final print. The amount of contrast is controlled through choice of grade of printing paper, 1-5, where 1 is low and 5 is high contrast; or through using variable contrast paper in combination with coloured filters to produce a similar result. Brightness and darkness of tones is achieved through the time exposure of the paper to the enlargers light, focused through the negative. And a fine control of exposure here is achieved through ‘dodging’ and ‘shading’, where the photographer can selectively darken or lighten areas of the print through selective exposure to light. The photographer desires an information rich, full tonal range negative, one which is correctly exposed and developed, for the greatest opportunity to create a fine print from it.
A negative isn’t created in digital photography, the closest thing we have in terms of an image file which holds greater information than our final print is the RAW file. The RAW file holds more visual information than is possible to see in a print and, similar to the negative, the photographer can select what to include in the final digital image or print.
“In line with recommendation from our Digital Consultant, Elizabeth Fife-Faulkner, we will employ the photographic capture method. This method allows faster image capture than the traditional flat-bed scanner method, produces higher quality results and is fast becoming the industry standard. In addition, the method reduces the instances of static, a significant issue for archive materials and in particular for 35mm photographic negatives.”
Most of the Digital Consultant’s recommendations were implemented but a popular method of copying a negative or slide using a camera, bellows, a lens and flash was hotly debated right at the onset of the Hidden Histories Project. The concern with this method was that of contrast, the longstanding digital printers of the Beaford Archive images at Focal Point in Exeter suggested that a LED light source would be lower in contrast and therefore help produce a greater range of tones in the digital copy. This was also in keeping with James Ravilious’ preference for old uncoated lenses for his Leica camera because he disliked the modern higher contrast lenses.
Focal Point were able to convert an old Bowens Illumitran Slide Copier, which originally had it’s own flash light source, into an LED copier more suited for our needs. This cobbling together of the best of old and new technologies was very much in keeping with the spirit of Ravilious!
10,000 images of the 80,000 negatives that exist in the Beaford Archive, roughly 1000 of Deakins and 9000 of Ravilious, were selected by a curator from the contact sheets I had scanned and created digitally. This information including negative number, description, date and notes, was received on an Excel spreadsheet.
Once the apparatus was set up, cleanliness and keeping surfaces dust free were key through regular dusting with compressed air. Negatives, which are removed from their archival sleeves by their sprocket holes with tweesers, were only handled by their edges.
The guys at Focal Point recommended that the optimum lens was a Rodenstock 60mm f4 enlarger lens. I discovered that it’s ‘sweet’ spot, where the grain of the negative was in focus right to the corners was between f8 and f11. My natural instinct had been to close the lens right down to f22 but this resulted in a softening of the image.
Once an exposure was achieved with a slight clipping of the negative’s highlights (a prints shadow image) I bracketed the RAW exposures by a third of a stop each way. Photographic film base for Ilford HP4 and later HP5 is the same density and so the only variation on exposure is through fogging to light or the occasional fixer stain. Many of the films have a variety of exposure and over/under development but this doesn’t affect the copying exposure to digital a great deal.
I then worked in batches of 10 films at a time which, at 4-5 pictures per roll that the curator had chosen, equaled approximately 45 images per folder. This gave me both a simple, straightforward filing system and a reasonable number to invert to positive images, adjust levels of exposure and spot out dust, scratches and hairs later on. (I’ll go into this in detail in a future post). After every batch I checked the focus and made adjustments if needed. The images were downloaded and a best of the 3 bracketed exposures was saved for each image. The Nikon RAW NEF files were converted to RAW .dng files because this format is considered universal and more archival because it isn’t associated with a particular camera brand. These files were then immediately backed up so that duplicates existed.
The undisputed best light for photography is sunshine in the early morning or evening, right? But every light type, time of day and weather condition, has its own quality which will have visual benefits once you really look for them. Circumstances can make photographing in the early and late sunlight virtually impossible, but I would never discount other times or light. In previous posts I’ve described the benefits of photographing in a cave lit by a heavy overcast sky or a shipwreck by moonlight and I think back fondly to picture making in the rain or in fog and mist.
Recently I’ve had some time available to me for photography around midday, a time with the potential of high sunshine and harsh shadows, a time avoided by many practitioners. The weather has been exceptionally hot, with harsh, bright sunshine; so I’ve been enjoying exploring in the shade of local woodland. This light reminds me of the album cover art for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River or Lee Friedlander’s images in his book The Desert Seen.
The high contrast scene that I see is softened by the canopy of full summer leaves, and made softer still with the use of a polarising filter. I’m also experimenting with exposure bracketing and HDR processing of the RAW images to again lower the contrast, heighten the saturation and emphasise the enveloping, claustrophobic effect the forest seems to have over me.
I’ve been exploring the hinterland between the A361 and Exmoor in North Devon, An area which seems to cling onto the past with traditional farming of small fields, separated by old beech hedges and winding streams; of high hills, deep valleys and pockets of seemingly unmanaged woodland. This area, less than 10 miles from Barnstaple, feels like a different country, with a different cooler and damper climate. Hidden from the few one-lane roads, it’s scattered old buildings are populated by people living off the land, or finding an off-grid solace in an overpopulated country.
The work I am doing for Beaford Arts is already influencing me: I’m starting to see in monochrome again. This is where every photographer started in the age of film, and where I too started in 1985, when I returned to my old comprehensive school to gain a few more qualifications, shooting a roll of black and white film for my CSE Art and Design.
I’ve been an adamant colour photographer since the early 1990’s over the last few years even doggedly squeezing the colour out of dull grey rocks, however North Devon has so many shades of green that sometimes, like Ravilious and Deakins did before, you just want to convert those shades to grey scale.
“Deakins’ negatives are not accompanied by an exhaustive set of contact sheets. A digital contact sheet will therefore be made with a scanner before being digitised. This will be a more lengthy process than the Ravilious collection requiring more time allowance.”
The statement above was the shortened version of my project brief for Beaford Arts Hidden Histories, a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Leader 5 North Devon. Contact sheets do not exist for Roger Deakins’ work, he did make them but cut them into strips and slotted them into negative bags with numbers removed. Although his contacts need preserving, and ultimately digitising for the archive, they are useless for the digital database without being able to identify unique negative numbers.
Unlike Ravilious, there was no numerical labelling of Deakins’ negative bags, so I started the process of making new ‘digital’ contact sheets with the first of four folders of negative bags. These negatives were housed in their original archival, but translucent, paper negative bags, often with written notes marks and connotations. Under close inspection on a lightbox I could see that negatives were often filed in a random order, sometimes up-side-down or reversed, sometimes the same number appeared twice and on one occasion 3 times. It became clear that a negative bag didn’t necessarily contain one film, one specific shoot, location, person or group. In comparrison to Ravilious’ contacts there appeared a randomness, or chaos, to his negative filing. However on closer inspection a thematic approach eg ‘railway stations’ had been taken. The negatives themselves were generally in very good condition for their age, with only a few which had stains through poor fixing or washing.
The negatives would ultimately need re-bagging in a comparable fashion to James Ravilious, clear plastic archival bags (this would also be necessary for making digital contact sheets through scanning), so in consultation with Beaford and the Devon Archives Conservator, I went about consolidating the negative strips and making new collections based on single films. This was very time consuming because Deakins (like Ravilious) often loaded his own 35mm canisters of film from a bulk roll so the first negative on a roll could be any number from 0 to 40 and each roll could be any length from approximately 12 to 38 frames.
I made the new digital contact sheets through scanning Deakins’ negatives, held within clear file pages, on the project’s Epson 800 Perfection V800 scanner. This time is was set to scan transparencies at 600dpi, large enough to be able to identify the place and/or subject in a photograph and to see those images in the context of the photoshoot, but small enough to make physical and data base storage practical. It was also within the independent consultant’s recommendation and the scanner’s linear relationship between quality and time: whilst a negative sheet was being scanned there was just enough time to make minor adjustments to cropping, exposure and contrast of the previously made digital contact sheet.
This was the most exciting and rewarding part of the project to date because I was able to see, as a positive image, that which had only existed as a 35mm negative since 1972. I wonder how many great images from yesteryear have been lost, because the 36x24mm negative or contact image had been brushed aside or unnoticed through their size, or poor exposure. Seeing each of Deakins’ images, with corrections made to exposure and contrast, 24cm wide on my computer monitor brought them to life. If only this technology was available when I was shooting film myself!
I had earlier written how Deakins’ negatives themselves were generally in very good condition for their age; however once the digital contacts had been made it became clear that some suffered from poor developing and light leaks (and in the case of the example above, double exposure), reminiscent of Robert Capa’s celebrated D-Day Landing photographs in the example below. After discussing the issue with the Hidden Histories coordinator we decided, rather than attempting the difficult and time consuming task of perfecting these faults through Photoshop, that we should embrace their endearing, nostalgic qualities; only digitally correcting damage to the negatives post processing.