Feb 27

Reclaiming Lost Photos

Tuesday, February 27, 2018 12:01 AM

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Imagine you have a photograph of an event that you know would look just perfect framed on the wall. You also think your family and friends would enjoy having their own copy of the photo, and really want to digitize and email it to them. Depending on how the photograph was stored, this whole scenario can take less than ten minutes to complete. You, however, have a problem: the photograph was stored in a tube, and now refuses to lie flat.

 

At an archive like the U.S. Naval Institute, running into a problem like this isn’t out of the ordinary. Now, however, with a massive digitization project underway, more and more rolled up photographs are coming to the surface, all of which we want to share with the public.

 

But what would be so bad about simply rolling out the photograph and forcing it flat for a scan? Unfortunately, taking such a measure may crack the emulsion (the light-sensitive colloid which creates the image), which could damage the photograph beyond repair. Destroying the original photograph to create a digital replica is a last resort, and one no archivist takes lightly. Another solution, then, must be found.

 

Some archival institutions have the funds or resources to use state of the art equipment that allows the photograph to naturally uncurl through a tightly controlled humidification project. However, most archives, like the USNI, are not so lucky. But as necessity is the mother of invention, getting an obstacle like this simply allows us to become more creative in our methods.

 

Creating your own humidification chamber is not that difficult, as long as you know the type of materials needed. First, a photograph is chosen. Because it is a time intensive process, making sure that the image is worth the effort can be just as important as unrolling it. For our first foray into DIY archival procedures, we chose a rolled photo of Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy in the 1930’s. [Note the level of curling in the image below.] This picture has extra significance because in the foreground the USS Sequoia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first yacht, is underway on the Severn River. After discussion, the archival team decided the photograph was worth trying this procedure. Moreover, if the procedure was successful, then unrolling more photographs in the future could be an option.

 

In order to humidify the photograph, an airtight container large enough to hold the photograph when it is rolled out needs to be procured. Then some yards of mesh screening and spun polyester. Once these two are cut to the size of the container, a towel, damp with cold water, is placed inside. The mesh and the polyester are then placed on top of the towel, followed by the rolled photograph.

Photograph being placed in the humidification chamber.

Photograph being placed in the humidification chamber.

 

Then comes the tricky part. Finding the exact amount of time necessary for the photograph to unroll — but not so long that the photograph begins to mold — can be difficult to determine. Issues like this are why archivists are specially trained, so we can conduct these procedures safely without damaging the photograph. In this case, we checked the photograph every hour for eight hours, until the photograph began to relax and unroll.

Photograph laying flat after a few hours in the humidification chamber.

Photograph laying flat after a few hours in the humidification chamber.

 

Once the photograph is unrolled, it needs time to dry. To do this, archivists use layers of blotting paper and spun polyester weighed down by heavy objects to keep the photograph flat as it dries. If not enough weight is used, the photograph can curl back up. If the weight is unevenly distributed, the emulsion can crack or deteriorate, and possibly destroy the image. For our weights, we used books of the same weight from our library and placed them on top of a slab of cardboard to aid in weight distribution.

Books rest on top of the image to help it keep its new shape

Books rest on top of the image to help it keep its new shape.

We then went home for the day, ready to see how our handiwork did in the morning.

 

Some photographs, despite all you do to help them relax, just enjoy the curled-up position too much to change. In those cases, the best outcome is to be able to at least get the digital image before the photograph re-curls. As we lifted the weights off the next morning, it became clear that this would be our task.

Photograph slowly begins to curl, despite the humidification process.

Photograph slowly begins to curl, despite the humidification process.

Each minute that passed saw the photograph curling ever so slightly. The humidification treatment worked well enough, though, that we could lie the photograph flat in our scanner during our window of opportunity and not damage the photo or the emulsion. We took our chance and gave this photograph new life in an online world, even as we stored the original back in its tube.

Photograph of Bancroft Hall and the USS Sequoia after successful digitization.

Photograph of Bancroft Hall and the USS Sequoia after successful digitization.

 

In the future, we plan to experiment with this process even more, to see if we can get finicky photos like this one to keep their new shape, rather than repel it. For now, though, we are satisfied with the knowledge that we found a way to bring this photograph back to the public, even if the original doesn’t want to hang on our wall.