Written by Thomas Busciglio, ICFA Intern (Spring 2015), University of California, Santa Barbara – Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po)
Seeing a professional scanner for the first time is intimidating. A new user like me always wonders how to make the most adequate use of it. In the archival world, the flatbed scanner can indeed become either your best ally or your worst enemy. So when I applied for a digitization internship at ICFA for the spring of 2015, I knew I would have to tame the machine before it tamed me. We both put up an honorable fight. But in the end, I won, the machine obeyed… well… every hasty conclusion needs an explanation…
The object of my attention was a collection of 55 rolls of negatives donated to ICFA in 2008 by William E. Betsch, now a retired professor of Greek and Roman Art from the University of Miami. During the summer of 1970, the 31 year-old PhD student travelled to Istanbul in order to gather the necessary documentation for his dissertation on Late Antique capital production in Constantinople, hoping to establish a better chronology for the stonework of the time. For a few weeks, he explored the streets of the Turkish city, taking photographs of dozens of capitals both in museums and in situ in former churches and cisterns. The total number of 642 images he entrusted to Dumbarton Oaks is impressive, and they now constitute the collection entitled William Earl Betsch Photographs of Architectural Capitals in Istanbul, 1970 (PH.BZ.002).
As part of an effort to preserve and make them accessible to a greater number of people, my role was to provide digital scans of the negatives, following archival and ICFA’s standards. In 2012, former ICFA intern Rebecca Calcagno digitized the first 245 frames of the collection. After a brief introduction to my new partner, the Epson Expression 10000XL Photo Scanner, I thus took on the challenge of scanning the remainder, an experience that taught me two fundamental lessons.
Naturally, technological devices are of great help to archivists in their desire for preservation. Yet with the new dependence established between the individual and the machine, a loss of control can sometimes occur. The digital version, which is the outcome and result, will inevitably be different from its original. If the scanner can be fully calibrated to fulfill specific goals, it retains its part of uncontrollable mechanisms, and in the end is the real agent of transformation. I faced the situation myself, when my supposedly faithful companion decided to overexpose parts of the image or when I noticed the presence of white streaks on earlier images without those being actually visible on the negatives themselves. They had somehow been a creation of the machine itself. And I therefore needed to engage in a necessary conflict with the instrument, a constant questioning. Indeed, only human judgment can be used to perform this subjective quality control, since machines only accomplish tasks, without thinking about the process in itself.
But beyond the struggle with the machine, the struggle with oneself may be equally important. This second lesson indeed revealed itself more and more clearly to me, and is tightly related to the first one. In the process of relying on the machine to transfer the information contained within a physical support medium into an immaterial one, the importance of being consistent is essential. One of the topics discussed at the beginning of my internship was the practice of “improving” scanned images by manipulating them during the scanning process with sharpening tools or auto-focus. Sticking to archival standards, we naturally agreed to keep the digital surrogate of the negatives as close and truthful as possible to the “original,” including their flaws. This meant that I scanned the negatives that were overexposed, dark, and partly blurry just as they were. Polishing them would have been wrong, since it would have meant losing their essence, their nature – in a sense, retaking them.
Consistency was also important in capturing the entirety of the physical object. I must confess that this aspect was trickier for me. In my digitization frenzy, I happened to crop many images very close to their frames, sometimes loosing elements that were originally present in the image. Hence I learned the meaning of quality control, an examination launched after digitization and through which I carefully looked back at every frame, comparing their physical and digital forms. In the end, even though it sometimes came down to a matter of isolated pixels, I re-scanned twenty-seven frames, since my cropping had resulted in missing information and not capturing the entirety of the originals.
Consistency was also part of describing the digitized frames. I needed to be consistent in respecting the descriptions provided by the author himself, in a notebook that he donated to ICFA along with his photographs. Augmented with hand-drawn diagrams and numerous margin notes, the notebook records Betsch’s immediate impressions and perceptions in the field and shows how well planned his project was. For clarity, ICFA staff constructed additional descriptions for each frame based on Betsch’s notes, often expanding his abbreviations or standardizing the terms used. Both the original unmediated information from the notebook and the constructed descriptions were included in the spreadsheet I used to track of all the images. Digitizing the notebook itself eventually seemed indispensible, in order to capture Betsch’s project in its authentic wholeness.
I also needed to be consistent in detailing the physical traces of the originals that were visible in their digitized form: spots, dots, scratches, and streaks. I had to determine whether these were caused by time or by the scanner in the process of digitization, whether they were part of the original support medium or a result of the translation from one form to the other. Since the original negatives will be put in cold storage, their digital cousins will be the main access point for future scholars and archivists, who will need to know if what they see is a trustworthy rendition. Anticipation, another lesson to take away.
Modern technology is of great help to us in our need to preserve and hand down our cultural heritage to future users. In their digitized form, the Betsch negatives will enjoy a well-deserved second life. But what I have learned from this project is that the person behind the desk determining the desired scanner settings should never assume any impeccable result. Consistency and steadfastness remain necessary qualities of a good archivist in charge of digitization. Beyond the sharp lens of the machine, nothing will ever replace the acuteness of the human eye and of human perception…