“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.
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 100-400 iso 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.