I recently visited the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke and was floored by what the guy created, and the way he went about doing it. The five years Link devoted to photographically documenting the last days of N&W Railroad’s era of steam power resulted in a visionary, inspiring achievement. Link transcended the routine in capturing the mighty locomotives as well as the quieter scenes of stations and people of the steam rail culture.
He didn’t just snap photos; Link painstakingly planned every detail of each composition and its technical requirements. He would spend months scouting and planning for a particular shot, then days setting up lighting and other equipment for one brief exposure. In comparison, the old film photographs I’ve taken – and I’ve taken thousands – are a moonshot away from what Link accomplished. But at least I have a healthy appreciation for his work.
It got me thinking, revisiting my own journey through photography.
Prior to the digital age, photography was a bit more complicated, to say the least. It took a concerted effort to get good results. When I was a kid, my dad was “into” photography. Besides documenting our family’s goings on he created photos with an artistic bent. Wildflowers, landscapes, nature. He taught me the basics, including developing and printing black and white film.
In a basement closet rigged as a makeshift darkroom I was exposed – pun intended – to the magic of silver bromide emulsion, developer, stop bath, fixer. All under the otherworldly illumination of the red safety-light. As an eight-year-old, to see the images appear on the paper when swished in the tank of developer was nothing short of miraculous.
I learned to use various manually-adjusted cameras. To get great photos, or even ok ones, one needed to know about things like f-stops, film speed and exposure time, depth of field, aperture size, focus. And how the various settings affect each other. I learned to use a cryptic little exposure meter. It was like becoming versed in a foreign language. And that was before getting down to the business of pointing the lens on your subject in a meaningful way. It was a fun challenge.
More limitations of old timey photography involved the fact that film was required. My first cameras took rolls of film that provided as few as twelve shots. Imagine that. Other common film roll sizes were 24 and the whopping 36 exposure types. So, for some special trip I might take two or three rolls of 36 exposure film. Each shot was precious; one always kept that in mind.
As a bonus mystery, there was no way of knowing whether you got the pictures you wanted, or if they even turned out at all, until back home and weeks later. You just had to be attentive and hope for the best. The film rolls would be sent to a processor and be returned as an envelope of prints or a box of mounted slides, depending on the film type.
The whole photographic she-bang was fraught with hazards that could, and often would, threaten the integrity of the pictures. If, for instance, light inadvertently leaked into the camera it could ruin everything – or forget to select properly any one of the list of adjustments of the camera and the picture quality could suffer mightily. And the cameras were bulky and fragile. Try dropping a Pentax ME lens-down on asphalt like I did.
Anyway, there were plenty of opportunities for mess-ups. On a bicycle camping trip I took with a friend, I discovered upon returning home that there was no film in the camera, even though it had been behaving like it did as I carefully took a whole roll of 36 imaginary pictures.
My dad always shot slide film versus print, and I adopted the same choice. For the uninitiated, a slide is a small 35mm transparency mounted in a plastic or cardboard frame. When coupled with a projector the images can be viewed on a big free-standing screen, or on a wall or even a sheet hung between rafters. Having frequent slide shows in the living room – we kids stretched out on the floor – was a fun part of my growing up.
As the digital photo age came into being and the advantages of it became more and more apparent, it became obvious to me that making our old existing photos into digital versions of themselves was a great idea. After all, doing that would enable us to do with the old pics what we so take for granted with our digital shots: easy accessibility, editing, storage, sharing.
What I especially like about digitized images is how easy it is to quickly review them, or to find a particular one you’re looking for. It sure beats sorting through a box of slides – squinting at each one as it’s held up to the bulb of a table lamp, looking for a picture of say, my uncle Graham.
So I took on the project of scanning the family slide collection, my dad’s huge one and my own slightly more modest one. We also had a random collection of old prints squirreled away in shoeboxes or falling out of scrapbooks. I’d get to those too, eventually.
Beyond getting the job done, the process of going through all those slides afforded a trip back through the years as never before. I celebrated finding the jewels among the photos and, by the way, I culled the poor ones. Must discard crummy pictures! They just clutter the collection.
Of course, there are outfits happy to digitize old photos for a fee, but I found doing the job myself was fun and interesting. I mean some of the pics I hadn’t seen in decades, some I don’t remember ever seeing before and others that I’m sure certain family members wish I hadn’t found.
The tech for digitizing photos is pretty basic. I’ve used different versions over the years during different phases of my project but it all involves placing the slide, or slides, in the scanner and pressing a button. Using photo software the images are then filed in groups according to date and description. Once the different files have been established I can add to them as various photos emerge, and the same special photo can be relegated to more than one file, which of course increases its accessibility.
Lately, for the old prints I mentioned – as opposed to my primary quarry of slides – I’ve been using my “quick and dirty” scanning method. That is by taking a photo of the print with my cell phone and going from there. Cell phone cameras are so good that this easy option works extremely well. I just have to be certain there’s no glare on the print being photographed.
For me this project of digitizing photos has been a lengthy one. After all, I’ve scanned over 35,000 slides and more still lie in wait. I’ve been at it off and on for years, although the bulk of what I set out to do is behind me. When I was in the thick of it I had my work station set up on a card table in an out-of-the-way spot and dived into it whenever I had the time and inclination.
I’ve learned a lot in this photo archiving journey, and not just about the digitizing process and the various tech involved. In going through all these thousands of family pictures I’ve observed what you could call the cultural anthropology of it: the nature of our picture taking, the what, the when, and the why. Sometimes the why of a certain photo isn’t self evident, but I know it was subject matter that was deemed important at the time.
I know it seems like we take pictures of absolutely everything these days, with our cell phones in quick-draw mode. We obviously have a strong desire to bolster our memories – to share them – with photos, to hang on to our special day-to-day experiences any way we can. And that just seems to me part of being human.
So, keep snapping, saving, and sharing those photos. And scanning the old family pics? Get on it!
– Johnny Robinson