"Digital imaging and preservation" are words rarely used together. It is important to note that the digital file DOES NOT replace the original. It is impossible to create an exact digital replica of an original photograph. Besides, nothing can replace the experience of seeing the original. Digital imaging can, however, help prevent the loss of information over time. Here are two examples:
Have you ever seen a negative that looks yellow like the one shown here? Yellow negatives are not uncommon in historic photograph collections. It is very difficult to get good blacks and whites on prints in the darkroom from these deteriorating negatives. There are several possibilities for the deterioration of these yellow plates, but the end result is the same, a translucent negative. Advanced digital technology meets the challenge of getting a good print from these negatives. Scanners with high density ranges can see the subtle differences between shadow and highlight areas and produce a digital file showing good blacks and whites and when printed produce a high quality print.
Here is a close-up of the image shown above. In order to show you what the original glass plate looks like, we placed it on the scanner with a piece of white paper on top of the negative and told the scanner it was scanning a reflective object.
This photograph along a street in Lincoln, Nebraska, is from the Katherine Buck Collection.
Without digital imaging technology, it would be virtually impossible for us to offer access to the information held in these deteriorating negatives.
More examples of yellowed plates
Deterioration of negatives happens in other ways, as well. Unfortunately, sometimes they break and sometimes emulsion will flake off the glass plates, causing loss of information. Creating high resolution image files from negatives now, before they deteriorate further, will stop that loss of information. The key is to capture as much information as possible before it is lost forever.
This is a glass plate negative from the Solomon Butcher Collection, RG2608.PH-3443, which is broken in three places. Notice the lines down either side of the turret. Because of the break, emulsion has pulled away from the glass and been lost. This is what caused the black area on the roof of the hotel. Luckily, the photograph collections at the Nebraska State Historical Society contain a POP or "printing out paper" print made from this negative prior to the break. The information lost in the negative exists in another form. In this case, we were lucky.
You may wonder why there is so much concern for loss of information on a rooftop. Think if that big black hole were on the porch of the hotel, where all of the people are standing. All of a sudden people are lost, not just architectural features.
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