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Eureka! A photographic victory
January 8, 2011 - Bill Ackerbauer
In addition to being a fiddle geek and a literature nerd, it seems I also have turned into a photo-history dweeb.
Digging up old photographs for our “Remember When” feature has become one of my favorite tasks here at the newspaper. Browsing through the film archives is like stepping into a time machine. And the experience just got more interesting, now that I’ve solved a problem that’s bothered me for more than a year.
Since our archives go back to the late 1800s (this newspaper traces its history back to 1887), we have materials that span the many generations of photographic technology — from glass-plate negatives to four-inch celluloid negatives to the more modern 35mm negatives. Most of the photos that have appeared in “Remember When” over the past two years have fallen into two categories: pictures submitted to me by readers, and images I’ve scanned from 35 mm negatives preserved here, mostly from the late 1960s, 70s and 80s. We have a vast archive of even older images, especially from the 1950s and early 1960s, but they are in the 4-inch format, which I found impossible to scan properly. Our Epson digital flatbed scanner just isn’t designed to handle 50-year-old negatives.
A few weeks ago, however, I mentioned this problem to one of my “Remember When” correspondents, Johnstown native Frank Simek Jr.
A professional photographer living in Pennsylvania, Mr. Simek gave me some great advice about using a light box and frosted glass to scan the older negatives.
After experimenting a bit (I won’t bore you with the technical details), I finally managed to make it work. This means I now have access to about 15 years’ worth of Leader-Herald archive photos that were previously unusable. This Sunday’s “Remember When” photo is the first shot from a 4-inch negative that I’ve retrieved using the new method. You can see the difference by checking out the photos at right. The one on the left is the “before” picture, the results of my previous scanning attempt: pretty awful. The one on the right is a scan of the same photo using the new, improved method.
I nearly danced a jig in the newsroom the other day when I finally got this to work. Thanks, Frank!
By the way, the Jan. 16 installment of "Remember When" will be especially cool. (Hint: It will be interesting to fiddle geeks as well as history nerds.)
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My first attempt to scan this photo — a scene in which some candystripers are earning their caps in 1966 at the old Johnstown Hospital — looks pretty awful. (Click to enlarge)