I’ve started an 18 month freelance contract for Beaford Arts. My work is to digitise 10,000, 35mm, black and white negatives, of James Ravilious and Roger Deakins. These date from 1971 to 1989 and cover all aspects of life in rural North Devon.
The archive of negatives is held in a climate controlled, fireproof, strong room at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter. This is where the negatives must be kept and downstairs in a conservators office is where I have my work place seen in the images above.
“……..James Ravilious’ work includes a complete collection of contact sheets made by the artist. These will be digitised by the Digitiser using a flatbed scanner. Most contact sheets will be straightforward scans, however, some have overlapping images and exposure issues to resolve in digitisation.”
“All Ravilious contact sheets will be digitised to a high enough quality to enable negative selection to take place and research and background data to be gathered without repeated handling of the original contact sheets. ‘Good’ and ‘Best’ images will be marked up on digital contact sheets by the Digitiser, referencing the original database, to ensure easy reference and prevent repeat selection. Two sets of digital contact sheets will be made – one for negative selection, and one left unmarked to reveal James’s original markings only, for dissemination purposes. Tests suggest scanning contact sheets at 600dpi enables high quality images suitable for on-screen viewing purposes.”
James Ravilious started his commission from Beaford Arts to “show north Devon people to themselves”, in 1973, continuing the Beaford Archive started a year earlier through Roger Deakins (who became the great Hollywood cinematographer). The first two months of my contract have been spent scanning all 2306 of Ravilious’ contact sheets on an Epson Perfection V800 Scanner. This was the first stage of the process to archive the contact sheets digitally so that in the short term a curator can select approximately 9000 of his images for digitisation and in the long term the digitised contact sheets can be themselves searchable items in a database. Ravilious worked right from the start with an archive in mind; archivally processing his negatives as best he could (developing, fixing and washing his negatives in an often difficult, imperfect working environment) and numbering, filing and storing his negative bags and contact sheets. He also annotated his contact sheets on their face and rear indicating his prefered best images, description of place, name of subject etc.
A small percentage of the contact sheets (and negatives) had been archively rehoused in separate new folders prior to my start which speeded up the digitising process. However once I got to view the contact sheet and negatives together in the same folder I noticed some negative strips and many ‘end of film’ negatives which didn’t make it onto the contact sheets – I started to make digital copies of these to add to the digitised contact strips but then abandoned this extra time-consuming work, marking negative bags with ‘post-it’ notes for later in the life of the project.
There were 2 or 3 sets of negatives, and occasional single frames, which had yellowed through under fixing or inadequate washing at the original time of processing the film. These films are not archival and will not last in the long term and will need re-fixing and washing in the coming weeks.
Although the negatives were all black and white I scanned them in colour to preserve the highlighted annotations, often in red pen. However, the drawback of the colour scan was often a slight colour shift towards green or blue, so a selective colour desaturation was applied in Photoshop afterwards. There were also handwritten annotations on the rear of Ravilious’ contact sheets which will need digitising and archiving later in the project.
Today, photographing digitally, one gets used to getting a ‘correct’ exposure. Most people now shoot everything automatically and today’s technology enables us to achieve excellent exposures for most of our photographs. Even professionals, myself included, who use a camera manually, are used to checking our pictures at the time of shooting so that any adjustments to exposure can be made there and then. These same professionals will benefit from incredible advances in sensitivity to light when taking pictures, in comparison to the 100-400iso films used by Ravilious in the 1970’s – 80’s; and also shoot in RAW, benefiting from its greater exposure tolerance. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to find James Ravilious’ contact sheets having both inconsistent exposure, one to the next, and having under and over exposure within a single film. But it did, because the last time I photographed on film was last century, and my last monochrome film was probably at the time Ravilious finished his work for Beaford Arts.
Therefore, digitising James Ravilious’ contact sheets, preserving them archivally for eternity, was a greater task than it seemed. Each sheet needed slight adjustments to exposure at the scanning stage through tweaking the levels of the histogram. Each digitised sheet needed adjustments for some of its images. These adjustments were not to perfect the images, or ‘make good’ his exposure, but to enable a reader of the digital contact sheet to be able to see what the image was, and in the short term to enable the project curator to identify images (negative) to be digitised.
I feel quite privileged to be one of probably only a handful of people to have seen 9,000+ of James Ravilious’ images, albeit small and with little detail, and to have gained an insight into his working practice through seeing 2,300+ of his contact sheets made in chronological order through his time at Beaford.
My latest exhibition, ‘Art Trek’, at St Annes Chapel in Barnstaple (with Monika Grand) is made up of two brand new pictures from this year (2016), three pictures from a few years ago which have not made it to the printing stage before, one image re-made from the original frames, another three made for the Sock Gallery in Loughborough last October and not shown before in Devon; plus some additional oldies and goldies.
The brand new 2016 images are from Bossiney, or Benoath Cove, in North Cornwall. It’s a place I’ve known for a few years but have really grown to love this year. The beach there is only accessible on a really low tide and even a spring low tide only gave me a couple of hours to explore the amazing caves.
The two caves at high tide are from Combe Martin, accessed via my kayak just as the tide had turned to go back out. The original photographs were shot in 2014 but my computer memory wasn’t large enough at the time to enable the full realisation of the works. This year I upgraded to 64Gb of RAM and so I have at last been able to blend the crashing waves successfully.
Another picture which proved impossible at the time of taking was the Cave at Menachurch Point, which was made up from such a huge number of images that I again had to abandon it until this year. This picture has been described as ‘tomb-like’ by one of the exhibition visitors. It’s right-hand cave wall, vertical, flat and ridged, is a great example of the original sea-bed of this contorted sandstone strata.
The Mouse Hole, has been totally re-made for this exhibition. Although it is an extreemly popular image I have often been troubled by the saturation and unworldliness of my original finished piece shown small here. This remake, literally taking the original RAW files and re-processing them in Photoshop and Lightroom, them re-stitching has given me something far closer to the original memory of the cave at Mousehole.
I’m in the process of adding gallery’s of images to this website, the latest being a documentary, commissioned by Beaford Arts in 2014, to photograph Hatherleigh Carnival in the style of the celebrated Devon photographer James Ravilious. These 45 images are the complete set shown in chronological order. (See Gallery here) Unlike Ravilious’ traditional black and white prints make in the 1970’s and 80’s mine are digitally shot in RAW then converted to monochrome; however I was seeing b/w in my minds eye. My own documentary style is not unlike Ravilious with nods also to Robert Frank, Don McCullin, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martin Parr.