Pictura Imaginis, images of images
As part of the Images for the Future project, the Pictura company in the North Holland town of Heiloo is digitising a total of 1.4 million negatives from the archives of the Nationaal Archief, Sound and Vision and EYE. Project Manager Olaf Slijkhuis is responsible for the smooth running of this mammoth operation. We interviewed him to find out all about it.
Olaf Slijkhuis - Pictura
How did Pictura managed to secure this enormous contract?
“The Images for the Future consortium put out a tender and initiated a testing procedure for all applicants. Pictura was rated the best in the test. The test involved digitising some authentic material as well as so-called targets, test cards which can be used to accurately measure the quality of the digitisation process with the help of special software. As well as meeting the strict quality standards, the fact that Pictura is based quite close to the archives also played a role, because the materials do not need to be transported long distances and the risks involved in that can be avoided.”
How much material is actually being digitised?
“For Images for the Future, we are digitising 550,000 6x6 negatives from the Sound and Vision archive, 394,000 negatives in various formats from the Nationaal Archief and 57,000 glass negatives (glass plates with light-sensitive emulsion). To handle the latter, vulnerable material, we have developed mobile digitisation labs that we can use on location. For example, we currently have two mobile digitisation labs at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague. The main advantage of these is that the material need not leave the building. Three members of our staff spend five days a week scanning non-stop. The 57,000 glass negatives have actually already been completed. The whole process took them three months. They will remain based in The Hague until the end of the year in order to digitise even more material.”
What is the condition of the materials you receive?
“The materials we have received so far have generally been in good condition. There may be an occasional crack or a missing corner in a glass negative. But these are digitised as they are, including the crack. As far as I am aware, there is only one collection in a poor condition: frozen acetate negatives in Heerhugowaard. These have been affected by acetic acid syndrome, otherwise known as tunnelling. Before scanning, they will be completely de-frosted, repaired in a restoration studio and then immediately refrozen. Many of the collections are made up of press negatives that were originally processed under significant time pressure. For example, they were often never even fixed, because a photograph was urgently required at the time.”
We receive the materials in batches of 40,000 negatives at a time.
What does the negative scanning process actually involve?
“We use a so-called one-shot system for scanning, which means you place the negatives on a light box and then take a photograph using a high-resolution digital camera. This involves placing the negatives individually onto the plate by hand. This cannot be done automatically because the negatives have been cut apart. However, for the Sound and Vision negatives only, we have created a masque which enables us to photograph three strips at a time. We receive the material in batches, and they are returned to the archive after having been approved. Each of the batches includes approximately 40,000 negatives for Sound and Vision, 7,000 negatives for the Nationaal Archief and 2,500 images for EYE. For the Nationaal Archief we are currently working on the Anefo collection (from the 1950s and 1960s). Actually, the content of the collection is not really of relevance to us. Ultimately, a negative is a negative.”
“We have designed the digitisation process so that it can be completed by people without specialist knowledge (but they do need to be mentally alert). In any case, it probably helps that the people here do not have too much involvement with the materials, otherwise they might be continually distracted by all the wonderful things that they see. The work is quite monotonous. Each individual person has to painstakingly handle 1000 negatives per day. It takes an awful lot of concentration.”
Position the negative, place the glass plate onto it, take the picture, remove the glass plate, change the negative… and repeat the process a thousand times a day. Even on a Saturday.
“Pictura has a permanent staff of 52 and we have also hired a lot of students as temporary staff. A total of around 100 people work here. At Pictura, people work until 10 at night and the scanning even continues on Saturdays…”
Is this an unusual job for Pictura, in technical terms?
“The main challenge lies in the sheer size of the job and the rigorous quality requirements that apply. Digitising 5000 negatives is not a great deal for us, but 1.4 million negatives within four years is a different matter altogether. That said, we will probably complete the job in less than four years. We have agreed with the client (Images for the Future) that all the negatives will be scanned at 300 dpi in A4 format. In order to achieve this, you need to scan a small format negative at a minimum of 2200 dpi. This calls for high-end cameras with 22 and 33 megapixel digital rear panels. Flatbed scanners used by many private individuals would be simply too slow. A raw picture delivers around 20 MB per image. Every day, we create around 4000 images in Heiloo and 2000 on location at the Nationaal Archief. The enormous amount of data that we generate is stored on our servers here at Pictura. Using a superfast glass fibre connection that is linked directly to the internet backbone, we also send this data to our servers in Amsterdam. This ensures that we always have a backup. For Images for the Future alone, approximately 2 terabytes of images are sent via the glass fibre cable every day.”
What do you do with these raw files?
“The raw digital negatives need to be converted to a positive image which is then cropped and processed. Around 80% of the images can be processed automatically, but the remaining 20% require human intervention. For example, this is the case for underexposed or overexposed photographs or images that were backlit when taken. These need to be corrected manually. The cropping process is not done in the Netherlands, but in India. Low-resolution files of the images are opened by people in India in a web browser. They then crop the photographs in order to remove any visible black edges. We are then sent the crop coordinates, which we use to apply the same crop to the larger file. The high-resolution TIFF files are eventually stored at the Nationaal Archief, Sound and Vision and EYE. The image database which can be consulted by people at home only includes what are known as top-view images, which have a lower resolution.”
What improvements do you think could be made to the process of digitisation?
“There is potential for innovation not so much in terms of speed, but more in terms of the quality of the photographs and the automation of postproduction (contrast, brightness, colour correction). For example, the image-cropping process could be made more efficient. There is hardly any sharing of information within this sector, because the companies that do this kind of work are actually our competitors. However, we do share knowledge with our clients in order to continually improve quality.”
What does it feel like working on one of the world’s largest digitisation projects?
“I studied communication sciences at the University of Amsterdam and am now studying art history alongside my job at Pictura. This, combined with a passion for photography, means that I have a specific involvement in the materials that are being digitised here. You also get to see things that you might not necessarily come across in a museum, some of them quite extraordinary. But it is important not to be distracted for too long, otherwise the job will never get done. Personally, I like the images from the Sound and Vision archive the best, because it is pure nostalgia. For example, you get to see behind the scenes on old TV shows… an amazing experience.”