The Beattie's Studio blog will provide some behind the scenes information on the studio, the collection of historic old Tasmanian photographs and the digitising process. There are plenty of articles, make sure you scroll down to see them all.
You would think finding the inspiration to restore 5000 historic Tasmanian photos by iconic photographer John Watt Beattie would be easy. Well I suppose it would be if I were a photographer, but I'm not. I'm an imposter. My grand father and my father were photographers, my brother is a photographer, as is my good friend, my printer and lots of the people I associate with. I don't know what I am (photography wise that is), I'm an anomaly, a photographer that doesn't take photos. That's not it exactly because of course everyone takes photos. I mean professionally. And I'm not a photoshop artist, although I do a lot of photoshop. I'm some kind of historic photography restorative computer museum curator. See, it's hard to define.
When I started this project, I needed to learn. I needed to come up to speed on the photography industry really quickly. And so I sought inspiration. The Internet is a wonderful place. If you can ignore the rubbish, there's a wealth of knowledge and experience out there. Wonderful people who love to share. I've learned everything from photoshop, digitising glass plates, landscape photography, black and white, exposure etc etc etc. You can literally Youtube anything. My daughter proved that when she made the pizza oven and Youtubed how to lay bricks.
I find that I have to have a constant stream of new exciting ideas or I get stuck. I'm stuck at the moment. Not on photography or technique but on business model. But that's another story. I'll write soon, I promise. Right now enjoy one of my personal favourite images from the Beattie's Studio collection - Franklin Square and Hobart GPO. I don't know what it is about this one, but I really like it. It's a big slab of glass, I like glass plates. Maybe it was the fact that the negative didn't give me any trouble, it came up the way I like it (all nice and contrasty) without much work from me. Maybe it's the fact that the Hobart City Council is restoring the park right now and I see it every day. Maybe it's because I've had a GPO box (behind the last arch on the left) for 35 years. I don't know. I just love it. I hope you do too.
I'm constantly seeking to improve my photography. With over 4 years invested in digitising the Beattie collection, I think it's fair to say I've learned a thing or two. At the high end of commercial digitisation the big gun scanners use a glass drum and the negative is mounted onto the drum with a special scanning fluid. Historic negatives are not normally digitised this way for fear of damaging them. And of course glass plates can't be bent around a drum. So wet mounting (sticking the negative to glass with fluid) is not something that is used for this type of project. But that didn't stop me researching it and deciding if wet mounting had something to offer. Turns out that it did.
Some of the Beattie collection exists on 120 film. Where the original glass plate was lost, a high quality print was re-photographed on film. Ilford Fp4+ to be precise. So we have a lot of it and some of it is quite old and well worn. The acetate base (the "film") gets scratched with repeated use. One of the downsides to the very high resolution scanning process is that it reveals these scratches whereas the traditional darkroom printing, using an enlarger, does not.
The advocates of wet mounting claim that the fluid fills in the microscopic scratches in the film surface giving a better scan. The other benefits come from reducing refraction. Dry mounting sandwiches the film between two sheets of glass to flatten it. This means that you are photographing through at least one layer of glass. The more layers you put between the film and the camera sensor, the more chance of distortion.
So I decided to try wet mounting.
I got some excellent advice from www.scanscience.com and the wonderful Mr Dan Max who got me kitted out with appropriate fluid, glass and most importantly technique. This is a lot harder than it sounds because he had to ship "dangerous goods" internationally. The scanning fluid contains a flammable component so it can't fly, has to come sea and road freight.
The results are good. I can easily tell the difference between a wet mount and a dry mount scan. There are less scratches and marks but more importantly more detail and contrast. And the wet mount holds the negative much flatter than a dry glass sandwich. The process takes a bit longer but the results are worth it.
The photo (above) of Wineglass Bay is a wet mount DSLR camera scan with no retouching. Looks very good to my eye.
Numbers are interesting things. Most of our photos have numbers. They don't have much else to identify them, no names, no descriptions, no locations and certainly no metadata. Most have a four digit number hand written on the paper bag they are stored in. Mostly the number is also written on the negative too. So that's what you get - 4 lousy digits to distinguish thousands of lovely images from one another.
3647 is an interesting number. No, it's not the combination to my high school locker. I can't recall what that was, yet it seemed so important at the time. No, 3647 is the number of images in the Beattie's Lightroom catalogue. That is where I keep the digital master versions of our photographs. So in theory I've done 3647 out of 5000 negatives in the historic collection. Given 2016 was a bad year on so many levels, I'm pretty happy with that number. I believe I said this was a 5 year project and that number says I'm on track for a 2018 finish.
It's probably not appropriate to go into too much detail of all the pot holes in that track, let's just say they were significant and plentiful. What's more interesting is the journey down that track. And I can assure you that's a more interesting story.
One diversion was the scanner. I still get better results with my archival camera, but I needed a scanner for colour work. I do get people needing reprints of their weddings, portraits and other photos Beattie's took for them over the years. Many of these are in colour. And colour is really hard to get right. With all your fancy digital cameras and really smart software, you've probably never had to work with early colour film. And what a little bugger colour film is.
It all comes down to compression. That's the process of taking a lot of information and squashing it down into a small storage space. Your digital camera does that by taking lots of colour picture information and squashing it into a small jpeg datafile. And it does that really, really well. Even a cheap camera does a pretty good job of that and makes the process so simple that it's invisible to you and you've probably never thought about it. When it comes time to viewing the photo, a computer un-squashes the jpeg and produces a wide range of colours that looks so close to the original image that you are happy. You never think about how closely those colours resemble the original scene. Like I said, even a cheap camera can get this bit so very right.
Analogue film cameras are pretty good a squashing down the colour information. They store it on a piece of plastic film using a photo-chemical reaction. And this is where my problem starts. All of that highly compressed colour information appears to my eyes as a piece of orange coloured film. I can't see any colours in there. The whole thing is just a shade of orange;
I don't know about you, but for the life of me I can't detect any "colour" in this other than orange. Possibly the background curtain is blue and there's some green in the dress, but it's like one of those silly 3D pictures, you can stare and stare and some people just get it and some people do not. When it comes to colour negatives, I just don't see it.
With black and white, I just invert the blacks and whites (using a tone curve, black becomes white, white becomes black) and the negative un-squashes into a photograph. It needs some contrast adjustment, but basically it's a photo. With colour, I have to invert Red, Green and Blue (RGB) which doesn't sound too bad until you realise that each colour layer has its own compression and that's not a linear process. Oops, I just used a bunch of big words. Sorry.
Un-squashing colour negatives into an exact match of the original colour photo is hard, really hard. Each batch of film was different and you would need hundreds of adjustments and you might not get it right after all that.
So I bought some really expensive software that specialises in this complex un-squashing of colour negatives. It's called Silverfast and it's very good at what it does. The software itself is a right bugger to learn because it's very German. All the translation is literal. There is no manual. The training videos are done by very talented, German engineers who wrote the software so they know exactly how it works. They will tell you that the "achtung-o-meter" controls the achtung of the image, for example. Well WTF is that? The user interface was designed by ... no, just kidding, it wasn't designed at all. It was thrown together. In short, the software is God-awful to use but does a brilliant job.
So, in learning how to process the colour negatives in the Beattie's Studio collection, I spent most of 2016 just getting a grip on one piece of software. See, I told you it was an interesting pot hole.
So this week's new arrivals include an award given to the Anson Brothers for outstanding photography, 1879, a shot of Elizabeth Street Hobart that almost exactly matches out signature shot (771, the man on the bike) and many more.
I'm using the Epson V800 with Silverfast 8. This helps me "plough through" the smaller negatives. I say "plough" as they take around an hour and a half per negative. Yes, 90 minutes. Given the grunt of my Mac Pro, there must be some serious number crunching going on. The results are good.
Anyway, I'm back at it, which is good.
Modern social media seems to have received a bit of a shock with the result of the US election. They have had this problem of “fake news” for while now. Just so we are on the same page, fake news is the term for non-fiction where the facts are not accurately reported.
Or as Snopes.com founder David Mikkelson put it “The fictions and fabrications that comprise fake news are but a subset of the larger bad news phenomenon, which also encompasses many forms of shoddy, unresearched, error-filled, and deliberately misleading reporting that do a disservice to everyone,”
And there’s a lot of fake news about and not just on social media. Traditional media often displays a lack of understanding of the facts in a story. For example, a story about a scientist making a significant discovery can be be reported with the gender or physical appearance of the scientist taking the lead in the story and the discovery barely mentioned. Or the use of NBN to facilitate Beattie’s restoration gets reported with no mention of NBN at all.
When my late father wrote his book (Pictorial Portrayal of Tasmania’s Past) he engaged local history buff Basil Rait to do the history. Much of what Basil wrote was good, but he had a tendency to guess if the facts were not available to him. Facts can be checked or evidence given to support supposition and every historian brings his or her own views and distortions, no matter how minor or well guarded they keep them.
Once a bad story gets out, it lives forever. No matter how many times reputable, informed sources prove it to be false, there will always be many people who believe the original (fake) article. Vaccination is a classic example. Put aside your gut reaction for a moment. One fraudulent article in 1998 and there are still people who believe vaccines are proven to cause autism. They are not.
History is the same. History is written by the victors. And once fake history gets out, it lives forever.
I am not a historian. I think I’ve said that a few times now. The history I report comes from other sources. Where I infer things, I admit it. The story of my grandfather’s camera bag came from my head, I admit it. The fact is it’s in the shot. The reason he put it there could have been laziness or incompetence, it could have been stylistic but I prefer to believe it was to piss off his son the perfectionist. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I made a few more tweaks to the web site view. It's still not where I want it, but it's better than it was. I've posted the pros and cons of hosted websites before so I'll not repeat myself - again.
The (useless) camera info is gone. This referred to the camera I use to capture the image, not the antique camera used to make that image. Unfortunately, ancient film cameras did not record metadata like modern digital cameras. Working out which wooden camera Mr Beattie used for each photo is not something I am going to attempt. But all the cameras will be on display when I open a museum. (no cat out of the bag there I hope)
Over on the right of each photo, you will see the Title in grey text (generally a 4 digit number, occasionally with a letter prefix and/or suffix) which relates to the original Beattie's negative number. (e.g. 28g, the "g" means glass negative). That is the number we refer to the photo by. Don't ever quote any other number to me, it probably won't make sense.
The numbering on the thumbnails is gone. Very pleased to get rid of that, the extra numbers confused the heck out of everyone including me. You now just press the right and left controls to browse through the photos. If you are at the first photo, there is no left. If you are at the last photo, there is no right. If your device has a touch screen (tablet, phone etc) you can swipe rather than hit the buttons.
Under the Title is the Caption (in white text), which is the name of the photo or its description. (e.g. "Man on the bike, Elizabeth Street c1914"). This is there so you can search for photos of something you are interested in. (e.g. Elizabeth Street)
Then below that is "Categories and keywords". I finally found out how to fill in the "Category", "Subcategory" and "Subcategory Detail" boxes. These have been empty for years. That's how long it took me to find out how to use them. Anyway, these fields aren't as useful as you might think and really only help Google find images. The categories are pre-set and can't be changed. Like I said, not really useful. But I now have data in there. Just please no one complain that I have silly categories, because they are not my categories. I have to have this box showing as that's the only place the keywords show up. So no categories box, no keywords. And I do use keywords and they are useful. The thing that I can't display yet is the star rating of each photo. So I'll tag the photos with the keywords "3star" and "5star". Soon.
I got rid of more overlay information. And generally cleaned up the look. I'm aiming to make the viewing experience as clean and easy as possible, within the limits of a hosted web site. You came here to see photos, not pop-up information.
Thank you for your suggestions, I have to hang onto them until I design my own site. I think I have pushed the hosted site as far as it goes.
Not having studied marketing or design at school, the world of product development is all new to me. And I have to say somewhat exciting. It's sort of like shopping. You search for materials, compare research and select the ones you like the best. Then you find that they just don't go with that other amazing thing you had your heart set on, so you have to change one of them and so on. It is not as straightforward as I would have imagined.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I am working on framing for our prints. And that is the product I'm currently developing. I'm probably not ready to let the cat out of the bag just yet, but let's just say it will be as elegant as I can make it.
Just to clarify, this will be an additional product range, not a replacement. If you want a bare print for your album, scrapbooking, or to frame yourself, that will still be an option for you. Not taking that away.
The journey to digitising all of the Beattie Collection is a long and expensive one. If you've read any of my blog posts, articles etc you will understand that it isn't just a case of tossing them under the scanner. And the quest for quality, modern digital recreations is not easy. I've admitted before that I'm not (and there is no point) just trying to produce perfect copies of these historic Tasmanian photos exactly the way they've been done for the past 150+ years.
For a start, there’s no certainty that the washed sepia look was what the photographer (Beattie) would have intended. Sepia was developed to make the prints last longer. And the original Beattie prints (and those of that era) that have survived are black and white, not sepia. It is my personal theory that sepia toning was introduced by subsequent curators to present a historic look, rather than an accurate look.
And most importantly is the copyright issue. The copyright on original photos would have expired 25 years after Beattie’s death (i.e. 1955) But in creating new, derivative works, the copyright starts again. And it would be very hard to argue that my new digital recreations with their vastly different toning and Photoshop enhancements are mere copies. They are clearly a new spin on old images, making the grade as derivative not duplicates.
Now we could just donate this collection to The Archives and they would probably be scanned and stuck on a web site. And after a few years, the collection would fade into history, popping up here and there when someone needed an old photo. And if you want the proof of this, there’s plenty of examples. My belief is that this would not be good enough for the Beattie Collection. Read my blog article on the photo my son found at the tip if you doubt my passion.
So that’s NOT what is going to happen to this collection under my watch. It is being digitally preserved and enhanced and it IS available to the world. But that costs money and this collection has always paid its own rent. It’s an open commercial collection. Yes, decades before Creative Commons and Open Source and all that hippy "sharing economy" talk, this little collection found a way to survive. And this brings me to the point of my blog article. Hopefully, you are still with me.
I’ve said before that the web site as it is now is a beta for what I want some time in the future. It’s a hosted web site. It lets everyone browse (and search) for free, fulfilling my promise. And for those that wish, there are items for sale. The web site mirrors perfectly the museum experience offered by Beattie himself. But what you’ve not heard before is that the collection isn’t just photographs. There always was more to it than that. Beattie had artefacts from colonial Tasmania. My father added cameras and photographic equipment, books and other historical items. I want to add lantern slide lectures, because Beattie used to tour Tasmania showing his slides and giving his talks. (You didn’t think PowerPoint was an original idea, did you?)
With bigger ideas come bigger costs. To meet bigger costs, the collection has to work harder. Has to offer more to the public. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. And I’ve tried to figure out where I am going wrong with the products. And then I took a holiday and visited some galleries and museums. It struck me that this web site doesn’t really offer finished products. We offer bare prints you can turn into finished products. But you need to frame a print before it can be hung on a wall. And (up until now) I haven’t offered framing.
Modern galleries sell art in lots of ways that don’t equate to a bare print on paper. In fact, you are hard pressed to buy a “naked” print in most galleries. Everything is framed, ready to hang. And that’s where I am going. I want modern framing to suit modern houses. I had thought about a Tasmanian timber frame, but those are cost prohibitive. And then a friend asked me “are you selling the photo or the frame?” and I had yet another epiphany.
In the coming weeks, you will see new products added to the web site.
My wife and son found this photo at the Tip Shop. This beautiful framed photograph in perfect condition with no damage at all. Given the style and fashion, I estimate this to be 1950-1970. In truth, if I had the man power, I could search the old hand written registers and probably find out whose wedding it was. But I don't and that isn't the point. Back in the day this was taken, colour photography was far from perfected. The colours were often not accurate and the images tended to fade over time. Your beautiful wedding photographs probably wouldn't look so great by your golden anniversary. The chemical process just wasn't great. So despite colour photography having been around since about 1907 (and allegedly made popular by Hitler) it was not used or recommended for weddings at the time this one was taken. The photographers preferred to take black and white images and have them coloured by an artist painting the colours onto the photo. (hand coloured) The colours were more accurate and the photo lasted a lot longer. This one is probably well over 60 years old and the colours are still as bright as the day it was taken.
Several people worked very hard and used all their skill to produce this photograph. The bride, the dress maker, makeup artist, hair dresser and attendants (maids, as in bride's maids). All of these people got the bride (up 3 sets of stairs) to the studio looking just right. Then the photographer (and in this case I am pretty sure it was A A Stephenson) had to capture that look. He put the bride at ease, posed her and used his charm to get the right expression and look. He used his technical skills to capture that image on a negative whilst looking under a hood (a large cloak to shield the light) at the image upside down on ground glass. Then another technician in the dark room (probably William Stephenson) had to use chemicals and light to develop the negative. And yet more skill to produce the print onto paper. Then the colourist (and I'm guessing Miss Heather Brown did this one) went to work, based on fabric samples, notes etc. (She wasn't at the wedding, and had never seen the dress, complexion, flowers and makeup, so how would she know what colour to paint them?) And then a picture framer had to mount the picture onto stiff cardboard, seal it with a varnish and frame it.
The sad part is that this bride and all her family are possibly long gone. I'm guessing there was no one left that wanted to keep this photo.
So my son bought it with his pocket money (a whole $5) and brought it home. Mostly because his grand father had taken it. And I scanned it and present it here. Because it doesn't belong on the tip.
Now that I have NBN and can actually upload historic photos of Tasmania at a reasonable speed, I have taken the opportunity to have a little re-arrange. The collection from Tasmanian Historian and icon, Colin Denison had previously all been in the "Historical" gallery by themselves. They didn't have proper titles and the metadata was pretty basic. That wasn't Colin's fault, it was mine. At the time he donated them to me, I just didn't have spare time to properly catalogue them. And now I do and I have.
So these old photos from The Courier have now been integrated into the collection and properly tagged. That should make them easier to find. For example, if you search for "Port Esperance" you will now see the restored photos and the published versions. My guess is they were taken on the same day. It looks like the same lady (subject/model) to me.
Being re-printed and scanned from newsprint, they are not the same high quality, high resolution as the rest of the collection. There is not much we can do about that. The news paper prints in about 75 dpi and we like to get 300dpi. Incredible software will fill in the screened bits and give us slightly better copies, but we can't put back everything that was lost in the printing process. (Doctor Who, if you're reading this, I could use your help here.)
So enjoy them. Just be aware that if you order any prints, they won't be as stunning as we would like.
And for everyone who is waiting for the site re-design and better colour scheme - I haven't forgotten you. I said I wouldn't do a knee jerk, but I will get there, I promise.
The Beatties Studio blog will provide some behind the scenes information on the studio, the collection of historic old Tasmanian photographs and the digitising process.