Scanning all the things

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you’ve probably noticed by now that I got a new scanner. For fun, I’ve been digging through my archives and finding fun images to try out in the scanner. Of course I then upload them to FB, tag everyone I can ID in the photos, and let the commenting begin. My sister seems to be the brunt of most of this so far with incredible late 80’s and early 90’s attire.

The Walter family somewhere near Niagra Falls.
The Walter family somewhere near Niagara Falls.

The whole experience has really got me thinking about the differences between my analog and digital archives. So as it’s a Sunday morning, and the thoughts have had a chance to settle, I thought I’d write a little.

Getting Started

I purchased the scanner for the Moment’s Notice project I’ve just started. It’s a middle-of-the-road flatbed scanner that can also scan film up to medium format. It seems to work pretty well so far, and I think with some additional software and some anti-newton glass, it will be the perfect tool for the project.

I’d like to start with a little background about my own photography. I started taking pictures at a really early age. I think my first official photo was taken when I was around 4. It’s of the rest of my family at some picnic, and Talia ( my sister ) looks less than one year old, so I can sort of do the math. The photo is black and white, and was hanging in my parents kitchen for years until they recently remodeled. That’s about all I know about the photo.

Later, my parents got me a Kodak Disc camera. I think I was about 10 or so when I got it. Talia had one too. It was a really odd design for a camera, but kind of perfect for us kids, and we both took lots of pictures with them. Somewhere there is a shoebox with the processed discs, and I have most of the prints in another box.

When I was in elementary school, I started shooting with my father’s Nikon FM2 ( seen in the photo below ). It was my first real introduction to photography, and I took it everywhere and shot lots of rolls on whatever film my father gave me. I used this camera up until High School when one of our family friends gave me my own Nikon FM and a lens. I eventually added a 200m f/4 and a wide lens, and that would be my kit for quite a while.

My father and I in a very magenta scan of a Kodachrome shot in the late 1980s by Niagra Falls.
My father and I in a very magenta scan of a Kodachrome shot in the late 1980s by Niagra Falls.

In high school I took pictures for the school newspaper and sometimes for the yearbook. I shot lots of football and basketball games and whatever I thought was interesting. I had it with me all the time. I learned to develop my own film, and in my photography class the teacher let me set up my own “experimental” darkroom, apart from the rest of the communal darkroom, so that I could try out different developers and try out other experimental techniques.

This is all just to give you a sense of what my film based archive looks like. I still have just about everything I shot, and lots of prints and contact sheets that I produced as well. In high school I was pretty prolific and tried lots of different things. I even had borrowed a Speed Graphic 4×5 camera and tried using it to shoot portraits of my friends. I worked in my school darkroom, and in the summers I worked as a lab assistant at my fathers commercial lab where I did everything from custom black and white printing to vacuuming the floors and figuring out how to use dBase, NewViews and Supercalc on the office computer system.

My father with Pepper, our first dog while building the deck on the back of our home in Silver Spring, Maryland sometime in the early 1990s.
My father with Pepper, our first dog while building the deck on the back of our home in Silver Spring, Maryland sometime in the early 1990s.

Analog Everything

High school was a time of analog everything. By the very end, we were just starting to be “on line” and I think I sent my first email to someone via CompuServe on our Tandy 1000 computer. It probably arrived just as I got to college.

In college I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out if I was actually a photographer or not. It took me a while to understand that this wasn’t something I needed to figure out. I just was a photographer, independently of my career aspirations. I eventually found myself enrolled in the Imaging and Photographic Technology program at RIT, and I continued to experiment with photography in many shapes and forms. I continued to amass images. I shot just about everything I could get my hands on, including an 8×10 camera, which didn’t work out so well.

But college was also ( for me ) the dawn of digital imaging and the Internet. I started in fall of 1994 and during the first week I learned what NCSA Mosaic was. I started trying out the various Kodak digital cameras we had available and also got interested in film scanning and digital printing with out Iris printer and our handful of ink-jet printers. Things started to get a little muddy.

Towards the end of my college career, I went on a month long trip with a class called “Photography in the Southwest.” We traveled all over the four corners region of the United States, and I shot mostly 35mm chromes and black and white. I also shot a good amount of 120 film and a handful of 4×5. When I returned, I spent the rest of the summer printing the images in the RIT darkrooms. I worked really hard trying to make prints on the dark room, but I thought that most the best work I did was on the 35mm chromes. So I tried printing them with Cibachrome, and was sort of also unimpressed. Later, I also tried making internegatives. And while it was a successful experiment, the prints lacked the saturation and color accuracy that I saw in the slides.

The author squatting next to his Jeep somewhere in Moab, Utah during a photo trip in the late 1990s.
The author squatting next to his Jeep somewhere in Moab, Utah during a photo trip in the late 1990s.

First Attempts

So, eventually I decided to try out scanning my film on the RIT drum scanner. I was really impressed with the level of control I got from the drum scans, and was able to print up a good selection of them on one of our Epson ink jet printers. My friend, Eric and I put together a show of our work. My images were all color ink jet prints from the drum scans of 35mm chromes, and his were all large black and white Iris prints on water color paper from his 4×5 negatives. We invited all of RIT.

The opening of the show was a pretty awesome party and I distinctly remember a number of RIT professors looking quite amazed when they discovered that the prints were “digital.”  It was sort of an “ah hah” moment for me. The look of my archives would start to change dramatically. I’d shifted into digital, and started amassing hard drives and cd-roms in lieu of shoe-boxes full of negatives. Everything was changing.

A couple years later, the towers fell.

Going Digital in an Emergency

I purchased a Nikon D100 and a few lenses and set off to Israel to try and figure out of I was a photographer all over again. I shot only digital, mostly Nikon RAW files, and stored them on cd-roms I burned one by one with my Titanium Powerbook. The shape of my archive was changing again. I would shoot on CF cards, store them on this little mini-hard drive thing until I could get back to my desk and then burn what I had to cd-roms. I still have most of those cd-roms on a binder on a shelf.

Eventually, I’d move back to the states, where I worked as a photojournalist in Washington DC. I bought more cameras, burned DVDs and started amassing more and more external hard drives. Some of these drives failed, most of them are still on a shelf in the other room. The files are in all sorts of formats, from all sorts of cameras.

I keep thinking about the “shape” of my archives. I’m thinking about the moment when digital sort of took over, and things got a little ugly. I’m thinking about when I started backing up my files online, and the time when I got an iPhone and when that started to be my primary camera. I’m thinking about how the iPhone has sort of become the Kodak Disc of today–How I have it all the time, and that fact, it’s smallness and how it’s sort of become an extension of my being has changed the way I make pictures drastically.

I’ve also been thinking of the meta-data, and how my iPhone makes amazing meta-data. Every photo time-date-geo-stamped. Every image face detected, and all the EXIF data you could shake a stick at. It’s incredibly different than my film archives, stored in shoe boxes, and folders, with words like “HS f-ball” as the only identifying piece of information for a whole roll of film.

Contact sheet of images shot at Springbrook High School sometime in the early 1990s.
Contact sheet of images shot at Springbrook High School sometime in the early 1990s.

But, I’m amazed at how the analog images have held up. In digging through the files, I’ve noticed that in general, the film is in great condition. I can “see” the images right away and that clues me in to what they are, when they were taken and what they mean to me, almost instantly. They feel kind of safe, even though they only exist in one place, and could very easily be destroyed. And yet, I still have almost all of them.

I have plans ( as I’m sure many of you reading this do ) to scan them all, and make an online archive of everything so I can call them “safe.” But it’s just curious to me. Digital photography has changed the way I think and feel about photography so much. Of course I can see that my life itself has done that. Growing up, going through high school and college, living in Israel and having relationships, and different jobs, have all contributed dramatically to my relationship with photography. But, I really feel that digital and the Internet and Facebook and Instagram have had a profound effect as well. I think of photography differently now. When I shoot film, its with purpose and intent, and far less casual than it used to be. I have different expectations, and assumptions.

What Next?

Now the job of figuring out how to digitize my film collection, how to organize my digital collection, and how to marry them together and share them with the appropriate people. Now the job of re-organizing my brain so I can deal with a parallel future of analog and digital photography, because that’s a thing I’ve resolved to do in 2015. Now the job of finding more gems with which to embarrass my sister, or myself, like this one of the young photographer in line at a Taco Bell in Rochester, NY circa 1997.

The author in line at Taco Bell in Rochester, New York, sometime in the late 1990s.
The author in line at Taco Bell in Rochester, New York, sometime in the late 1990s.

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