Scantastic: Scanning Archival Images to Make Them More Useful

John Dillaber with his trusty scanner, 2009. One thing has changed drastically since John Dillaber started working as a museum technician in the Smithsonian Photographic Services twenty-five years ago, giving  both staff and the public access to prints made from the Institution’s vast photographic archives. Whereas John’s work was initially in the dark room, he now spends his days at a computer, Photoshopping scans that have been made of older, original photographs in the collections, as well as working on more recent digital images. A raw scan of the original negative of Suburban Gardens Amusement Park, by Scurlock Studios, Nitrate This switch from “wet side” of the dark room to the “dry side” of digital photography  cuts the amount of time John spends on  processing photos, and enables him to more effectively  enhance photographs so that the greatest possible amount of data can be gleaned from them. In the course of traditional photographic printing, each print used to require careful dodging and burning to bring out details, and then needed to be retouched by hand as well.  In that sense, every photograph printed from a negative or glass plate in the photo archives was unique. Today, Photoshop software allows John to easily highlight details in an old photograph, and to repair or restore damaged photographs. And when he does, he keeps a raw scan of the original photographic negative or print while creating a new digital file that reveals details in a photograph that might never have been visible or noticed before. “Sometimes when you scan an old image,” John explained, “it reveals a lot. People who have never  seen the [original] film, have  never held it in their hands, only get to see  an image as it  was printed in the old days.  They may be looking at a photograph that wasn’t printed well . . . there may be an area in the orginal image that needs some [enhancing]. With digital I can see all the information in an image more easily, and right away.” Enhanced scan of Suburban Gardens Amusement Park, by Scurlock Studios, Nitrate original negative, Ar The results of John’s work can be striking.  And, it’s important to remember that in addition to new digital rendition of the image, the original photograph, with all its physical traces of use—dirt, tears, crop marks, and any captions or notes that appear on the front or back of the photograph (all of which are crucial pieces of the photograph’s history)—is still preserved in the archive for future study and use. Stay tuned next week for a look at one of John’s recent scanning projects with the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, which revealed some secrets about China’s last and most famous empress, Cixi, Empress Dowager. As an ongoing feature on THE BIGGER PICTURE, we will be highlighting the work of Smithsonian Institution Archives staff that digitizes, archives, and preserves the photographic collections at the Archives. John Dillaber works at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in the Digital Services Division.

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