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Professional image archiving in 5 steps

The skills, tools and craft of still photo preservation

photo archive table
Photo archiving table. Image courtesy of Michael Cahill.

Striking a balance

I love the story of the photographer at a dinner party where the hostess mentioned she had seen some of his magnificent work and that he must have a wonderful camera. The photographer thanked her and said her meal was also magnificent and that she must have a wonderful stove.

We have impressive photography tools at our finger tips, but the value resides in how those tools are employed—both in the service of creating visionary works and how we preserve them. Having preserved and archived more than a century’s worth of images, PRO-TEK still photo archivists enjoy the distinct honor and daily pleasure of examining some of the finest work ever committed to film. The sheer volume of such high-quality photography is staggering.

And so, too, is the devastation their neglect has wrought.

We’ve been fortunate to work with smart people who recognize the value of triage as well as the very grim reality of not acting. However, still photo collections come to us in every conceivable condition. Whether tens of thousands of assets from a major Hollywood movie, or a few hundred negative rolls, tintypes and tattered prints from a private archive, each project is received with the same reverent care and handling.

And no two collections are alike. Some retain a semblance of organization while others are in complete disarray, poorly labeled, un-sleeved and exposed to contaminants. That’s when we roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Still photography’s role in motion picture history

In the earliest motion pictures, stills photographers commonly employed larger format cameras like the Speed Graphic that delivered a 4” X 5” negative, a prevalent format through the 1930s, 40s and 50s. From this negative a still of John Barrymore or Bette Davis would be blown up to an 8” X 10” internegative, which could be retouched and used to create numerous print stills.

In the mid-1950s medium format cameras like Hasselblad and Mamiya began to show up on movie sets yielding a 2 1/4” (120mm) negative. Improved film chemistry and finer grains allowed these less expensive film stocks to get a foot in the door. These compact negatives would likewise be the source for 8X10 dupe negs from which publicity prints were produced. In the 1960s, 35mm still photography began to make an appearance as well.

When a photographic project is created—whether it’s for a motion picture studio, corporation or other organization—any combination of formats may be employed. A single movie, for example, might produce any number of transparencies, negatives or prints; either black and white, color or monochrome images that have been colorized. All of these can originate from different sources.

The most common sizes are 35mm, 2 ¼, 4X5, 5X7, 8X10, 11X14 or larger. Many projects we process have employed every one of these formats and then some. While each project comes with its own list of peculiarities, ideally a five-step protocol has proven most effective in processing a stills collection.

Step 1: Appraisal and protection

When processing a motion picture, a sort/select technician first separates all the photos into categories such as scene coverage, publicity, behind-the-scenes, event photography and so on. From these categories, it’s determined what the “select” images are—that is, which photographs have been chosen and approved by the director, producer, and marketing departments to promote the film.

Selects represent a tiny percentage of the entire collection. On a traditional Hollywood feature the unit stills photographer can originate anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 still photos, yet a mere 50-to-350 may end up being selects.

No matter how many images a project may create, every single still is properly archived. Once segregated these images are assigned an “A” category or a “B” category. It is common practice that a client will have the A images (the original or master version of each select) stored at one location and their B images (duplicate versions of A images plus all unused images or overage) at a geographically separate location. Storage separation is a common corporate practice to ensure that if a catastrophe occurs, such as fire or earthquake, copies of the original materials will survive elsewhere.

Once a sort/select technician has categorized, archivally sleeved, labeled, foldered and packed all photography into archival containers, the collection is handed off for data entry.

Technician organizing photography into archival containers. Image courtesy of Michael Cahill.

Step 2: Asset tracking

Once sorted and re-housed, each group of photographic elements is individually bar-coded and entered into the client’s database including metadata such as image counts, sizes, color, formats and notes relating to damage, usage restrictions and special instructions. In a searchable database, asset groups can be quickly tracked and identified. Bar coding expedites searches for effortless image tracking and recovery.

Step 3: Scanning

High resolution scanning is a detail- and time-intensive procedure. Taking full advantage of the most reliable technology, our photo-scanning technician adjusts crucial parameters for every image scanned because each one requires a field of specialized adjustments to yield the optimal digital representation of the source photograph. Occasionally additional cleaning is required to remove dirt, adhesives, ancient fingerprints and micro fibers. Special care must be given to prints that are torn or tattered, or an older negative that has become brittle.

As each image is scanned, its digital file is given a title that typically begins with a project or picture code. Larger format images such as movie posters demand a far more stringent protocol to insure the safety of the source material and the acquisition of a serviceable digital file. PRO-TEK utilizes large format scanners for these items.

If a client intends an image for use in an art book, gallery print or other large format display, in such extreme circumstances the negative can be scanned at 600 or 1200 dpi or better, rendering magnificent print integrity. However, for a typical preservation scan, a TIFF file of 300 dpi at an average size of 8” X 10” is quite serviceable. The output is a clean and robust file requiring much less time per scan while rendering an impressive digital archive of the image.

Unless we are processing a particularly rare or small collection, it’s not necessary to digitize the entirety of a project. Client budgets and timelines commonly dictate that only the selects are typically scanned.

When image preservation is overdue, some damage cannot be repaired. Image courtesy of Michael Cahill.

Step 4: Quality control

Once scanned images are uploaded to a local server, a digital imaging technician can access them to make final adjustments. The procedure removes imbedded dust and dirt, and all other physical damage is diminished or rendered invisible. Finally, a color grade is employed to deliver an ideal balance of tone and color. This quality control process involves more detailed attention than any other step in the chain. The integrity of each image is preserved and will only be altered at the specific request of a client. No creative license is taken in the QC process, but rather each image is digitally optimized and restored, returning it to a state most likely intended by the original photographer.

Step 5: Adding Metadata

In the final phase all images are pulled from the local server and uploaded to the client’s image database by a metadata analyst. Each image’s file size, bit depth and resolution are confirmed, image titles and numbers checked and photo-specific metadata added. On a motion picture for example, the studio’s database is referenced to add the movie’s title, image category (behind-the-scenes, publicity, etc.), and the names of all actors represented in each photo. Crowd scenes can be a daunting identification challenge, as can very old and rare movies or foreign films.

Fortunately, within PRO-TEK’s ranks are several movie buffs and film history experts whose personal knowledge of classic cinema comes in handy on a daily basis. The metadata analyst also keeps a library of studio character listings from the mid-20th century close at hand. And it’s convenient having a broad knowledge of web-based search tactics to hunt down and verify elusive faces and names.

Once titles, names and notes have been attached to each image, it’s uploaded to the client’s image database where the finished file will be available as a pristine, full resolution image. The original acetate and paper elements are then shipped to vaults for secure, archival storage.

Tools of the still image archiving trade

The archiving of still photography has become a preservation process that we have streamlined to the client’s greatest advantage. As for any single collection, its entirety ought to be preserved, sorted and databased—but not all of it necessarily scanned. If visible deterioration is detected, of course a best-resolution triage scan is automatically performed on the affected image, capturing a quality digital copy in its least deteriorated state. If no physical deterioration is evident, the expense of scanning can be postponed until such an investment is warranted.

The process of organizing, rehousing and databasing a collection is far more than good housekeeping. It facilitates monetization and on-demand access. But more importantly, it preserves artistic integrity as well as corporate and cultural value.

Too often we’ve witnessed the consequences of poor storage, constrained ventilation, exposure to the elements and other forms of neglect – our inheritance from an era that did not know better. And yet today we have at our disposal a proven skill set and unrivaled archival technology.

PRO-TEK continues to make great strides in the archeology, resurrection and protection of physical photo assets while delivering the highest quality digital access for clients. A job like this demands more than mere tools—it relies on genuine expertise, passion and a heart for preservation.

Michael Cahill

Michael Cahill

Michael Cahill is a Photo Archivist at LAC Group.
Michael Cahill

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Michael Cahill
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