‘Seeing’ archives

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One of my on-going projects is to digitise film archives from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. I started this process a few years ago, but have only recently decided to be more systematic – starting with those first boxes and moving forward. I mainly used Agfa CT 18 slide film, and like many others sorted the ‘best’ from the ‘rest’. Being something of a squirrel, I kept everything. The ‘best’ are in slide trays, ready to load into the Leica Pradovit P300 iR, a gorgeous machine with a brilliant zoom lens. The ‘rest’ are in their original Agfa plastic boxes – orange at first, then blue from the early 1970s.

I have now decided to scan almost everything, using batch processing of 12 at a time via the Epson V 850. To do so, I methodically work through combining the ‘best’ and the ‘rest’ in numbered sequence (yes, I actually have a handwritten catalogue of every slide). It is a long and involved process. But I have an established work flow, and there are gems to be found which makes it worthwhile. Right now I am in 1975, on an Egyptian vacation.

Mick Yates. 1975. View from Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, Cairo.

I had a Praktica LTL, which was manufactured between 1970 and 1975 (my previous Praktica Nova 1B was stolen in Paris, in 1973). Prakticas were cheaper than their Japanese equivalents, clunky, and noisy. But the lenses were pretty good.

Mick Yates. 1975. Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo.

The work flow I use for scanning is this:

  1. Flat scan at 3200 dpi, usually with Digital ICE which does  good job of basic image cleaning on colour slides. Still, sometimes artefacts from Digital ICE can appear, and then I will re-scan without. Yes, it is a time-consuming process of checking the quality at each step.
  2. By the way, never use Digital ICE on black and white material – artefacts are inevitable especially on lettering and signs. Silver crystals in black and white films confuse infrared sensors, which Digital ICE depends upon.
  3. The Epson can automatically choose ‘thumbnails’ to scan, although occasionally this misses something at the edge of a frame so I tend to set the scan frame manually for each image. This yields a TIF of about 65mb, size 4160 x 2560 px when the Epson automatically uses thumbnails, or about 75mb, 4300 x 2800 when the frame is set manually.  Scanning at 4800 dpi yields an image of about 150mb, 6190 x 4110 px, which really fills the hard drive quickly, although I do that if I need a special high quality scan.
  4. As an aside, a full frame 35mm negative / transparency is 36 x 24 mm (equivalent to 425 x 283 pixels at 300 dpi). When mounted, an Agfa slides shows 34 x 23 mm of the transparency, and Kodachrome shows a slightly narrower aspect 34 x 22 mm.
  5. The scans are imported to Lightroom, all tagged with keywords of course.
  6. Having a file structure to keep track of everything is a prerequisite, and I use ‘Print Window‘ on my Macs to create master Excel databases of both raw scans and finished images, organised by dated folders.
  7. I do basic corrections (contrast, colour) first in Lightroom, although Photoshop’s fine-tuning, whilst fiddly, can really help. Often car colours will help (grey …) but the real focus must be skin tones. Sometimes Agfa oversaturated, and then the reds must be slightly reduced.
  8. Whenever I edit a file in Photoshop, I do so as a new TIF with Lightroom adjustments added first. This preserves the original scan as the ‘negative’.
  9. Older Agfa material may have taken on a slight purple / magenta cast. Lightroom can handle the basic colour cast – but Photoshop is needed on heavier restoration.
  10. Spotting and dust which escapes Digital ICE can be fixed with the ‘healing’ tools. The key is to keep this use as small as possible, so viewing the image as large as possible in Photoshop is essential – I tend to view at 200%.
  11. Also, some of the slide material may start to exhibit a ‘cracking’ effect, which shows as a ‘cobweb’ of bluish lines. In the sky, the healing tool deals with this, easily. But if the effect stretches across several (multi-coloured) parts of the image, I have found that selecting the area and then desaturating blues is a useful approach. Then I tidy up with the healing tool.
  12. Sadly, not every image is sharp and sometimes the material has deteriorated slightly. I know, ‘sharpness is a bourgeoise concept‘, but still some need a touch of improvement, especially as the transparency surface might be slightly warped which affects the scan. I do not to push this too much, and find that Topaz Sharpen AI works pretty well if used with care. I tend to use the ‘stabilise’ settings, and try to control noise as the program sharpens. The aim is to make the end result as ‘unnoticeable’ as possible to the human eye at the final image resolution, as I really dislike over-processed images. I invariably create a new layer in Photoshop, and apply Topaz to that.  I will view the end result at 200% to be sure that artefacting hasn’t crept in. If the effect is too harsh, then I will make the Topaz layer a little transparent over the original.
  13. I never fiddle with ‘false skies’ other than to clean them up. I much prefer natural, even if grey.
  14. I invariably leave the image at the original full frame rather than crop, though I will ‘rotate’ a bit if verticals aren’t really right.
  15. At the end, I will go through the images to be sure I am matching white balance (especially skies) as a series as much as possible before using the finished photographs.

It is a time consuming process, but I have found that having a standard workflow helps a great deal.

Stepping back, I find it interesting that the discipline of taking slides meant that we tended to focus on ‘what was in the frame’ – and also exposing for highlights.

Mick Yates. 1975. Khan el-Khalili Market, Cairo.

Perhaps the first ‘finding’ of my workflow is that, contrary to my tourist memory, I took a lot of photographs of people.

Mick Yates. 1975. The Historian, Giza, Cairo.

Yes, there are a few typical images of monuments, though frankly not as many as I seem to remember taking.

Mick Yates. 1975. The Sphinx and Pyramid of Chephren.

People have always been more interesting to me.

Mick Yates. 1975. Horses at The Sphinx.

Now I understand the history of photography a lot better, I see that ‘street’ goes back to the beginnings of photography, with perhaps the flâneur Eugène Atget the first major exponent. It is only during the 60s and 70s that ‘street’ became a genre, rather than just ‘documentary. Anyway, I digress.

Mick Yates. 1975. Near The Citadel, Cairo.

What I find absolutely fascinating is seeing new things as I work through the slides. I absolutely cannot remember taking the photograph above of a pottery sale negotiation. And whilst I tried to make good, stand alone frames, the happy coincidence of the boy in the foreground makes the image. This was taken from a bus, by the way.

Whilst I really took more than one picture of any given scene (overconfidence? Sparing the film?), I did often ‘work the scan. I do recall this photograph of the Citadel, which made my ‘best’ set. And yes, that was the actual sky colour, just restored a bit.

Mick Yates. 1975. The Citadel, Cairo.

Going through the ‘rest’ I also found this photograph – an historic record of scenes gone by, I think. This was an image consigned to storage, as I assumed that it would hardly interest viewers of my original slide shows. But now, but as an historical, social document, it is meaningful.

Mick Yates. 1975. Flats near The Citadel, Cairo.

I had thought that my current overt pursuit of narrative is one of the biggest changes in my photography since I worked through the MA. But when I look back at the Egypt series, perhaps not.

Mick Yates. 1975. Coke Seller at the Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor.

I recall this event. It was a scorching hot day, and our small tour group had just got out of our bus. Out of nowhere this very resourceful gentleman (and his daughter) showed up. Coca Cola appeared, kept cold with ice from his bucket. He sold out in minutes. I managed to take the photograph before the seller was mobbed by customers.

And then there is this, which had been consigned to the ‘rest’. I had thought that the image was not technically good enough to make the ‘best’.

Mick Yates. 1975. The Garden of Allah, Cairo.

When I actually properly looked at this photograph, I saw layers. I do not remember taking it at all – probably a bit of a ‘grab’ shot as we walked these streets. But then you ‘see’.

The boys are trying to attract my attention. The photographer is advertising his portraits, probably taken with a large plate camera (and an Arabic-speaking acquaintance noted that he is selling photocopies, ready in 30 seconds). People are going about their daily chores, and there is a cafe at the back. Eventually you visit the perfume shop ….

The boy at the front is blurred, and without feet. So this is not an image for the RPS or the camera club. Colours faded. But I love it.

Looking again, seeing, and finding a narrative is rather more interesting than photographing the Pyramids. That is, unless you climb to the top in the evening, when the tourists have gone, as we did with a guide. I am sure now this is strictly forbidden …

Mick Yates. 1975. View from the Great Pyramid of Cheops, Cairo.

And here is a view from the next day – to the west from Cairo Tower, looking towards the Pyramids,

Mick Yates. 1975. View from Cairo Tower, to West.

And, looking the other way, towards the Egypt Radio and Television Union.

Mick Yates. 1975. View from Cairo Tower, to East.

Hardly great images. But unique, historical ones.

Full gallery here … https://www.mickyatesphotography.com/Travel-EMEA/Egypt-1975/

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