Digitising Gill

This time of year is very hectic at the Faculty of Arts as the graduate exhibitions are due to open in a few weeks’ time – there is a definite sense of excitement around the building that makes everything take on a kind of new level of commitment!

Whilst I have been busy continuing my day-to-day duties in the Design Archives, my involvement with the Gill project has been a little on the quiet side over the past few weeks – until this week! In the meantime, decisions have been made about pieces that are going to be exhibited in cases rather than hung and from what I can gather, wall space and the sequence of the items being hung is also very close to being finalised. This week I have determined any additional Gill works that will need conservation attention and scheduling this work in for next week. I have also been consulted on the best way in which the items in cases should be secured.

Digitisation, University of Brighton Design Archives, Sirpa Kutilainen
The studio set-up in which we photograph larger archival materials too big for our scanners, located at the Photographic Unit here at Grand Parade

Yesterday I spent the day in the studio photographing the objects that were conserved by myself and Melissa Williams in the first selection of objects needing conservation attention. We do the digitisation using the medium of photography as opposed to scanning by having a set-up of two flash units to assure even lighting. This also means that there is as little exposure to continuous light as possible, minimising any long term light damage to any colours in the long run.

Currently the objects are stored in their own individual made-to-measure Melinex sleeves that are sandwiched between two very large pieces of plywood strapped together. Due to the size of the items, this is to not only protect the works during transportation but to encourage the flattening process further while the works are in storage with limited space. This type of care makes not only all the conservation work worthwhile, but makes the items easier to handle and to eventually frame. Transporting the works from our storage area to the photography studio on the second floor safely required some major team work!

After the large items had gone through a flattening process, handling them on your own is close to impossible. For the photography to be done safely, I needed an extra two pairs of hands to help me. The large scale items were done in the morning with the help of my colleagues Barbara Taylor and Madeleine Meadows. I decided against photographing a few of the pieces due to their size and the weight of the paper as I had concerns about their safety using the T-pin system. In the afternoon I finished photographing the smaller objects on my own, after which all of the works were taken back to storage prior to framing. Some of the this will be done in-house by Dave Cooper but the larger items are going to be delivered to a local framing shop.

What I wanted to do was to use Gill’s ‘European Aerodromes’ poster from 1930 to do a little test with. This poster was small enough for me to scan but I also wanted to photograph it to compare the two different digitisation processes.

Digitising, University of Brighton Design Archives, Sirpa Kutilainen
Detail from ‘European Aerodromes’ poster at 200%. Photographed using a Mamiya 6×7 camera with an Imacon digital back

When digitising by using photography a lot of the very fine details on objects get lost in the process, despite using a high quality medium format camera with a digital back. With a digital photograph of this nature, colours seem a little more subdued compared to ‘reality’ and the focus always appears to be a lot softer than it should be. This could of course also have something to do with my eyes and the ability to focus the camera properly! A lot of the surface detail appears to get lost, and the object can look very two-dimensional and flat. This method is, of course, a suitable way in which to digitise objects that are not likely to be enlarged to anything bigger than their original dimensions.

Digitising, University of Brighton Design Archives, Sirpa Kutilainen
Detail from ‘European Aerodromes’ poster at 200%. Scanned using Epson Expression 10000XL

Scanning with high quality equipment gives the objects a lot more detail and therefore makes them somehow more alive; colours tend to be more vibrant even before any adjusting is done on Photo Shop to get the digital file as close to the original as possible. I have scanned items before where there has been a tear or a hole – and when the scanning is done to a high standard, you can almost feel the paper fibres on screen when zooming in to the details. The surface of the object  has a three-dimensional quality to it when you are able to see the roughness of a surface – almost like looking at it through a microscope. Scanned objects like this then have the potential to be reproduced even bigger than their original dimensions without losing too much of the information in the process. Scanning sometimes makes me feel as if I am making objects a little bit ‘over-realistic’.

Either way, these types of issues should be taken into consideration in archives and museums that are dealing with digitising flat pieces of work. Of course the quality of a digitised item is also dependant on what it has been digitised for. I personally feel that if you are going through the process of digitising materials, the time it takes should be used efficiently and the aim should be to create a digital file to a very high standard. This also means eliminating having to scan or photograph an object more than once by having a good quality, high resolution file from which to work from. This can then be re-sized and used in many different ways – from possible reproductions to publications, databases and the web.

One comment

  1. Sirpa Kutilainen

    Due to a migration of this blog to a new layout, all comments made to posts have been lost in the process. Below are the comments, with name, date and time, made for this post.

    Barbara 13 May 2011 10.57am
    Just thinking about the examples shown between the scanners vs cameras when digitising. I was wondering if the difference in quality might be due to the fact that the focal length is different? When you photograph the poster, you will be further away from the object. So that would be a factor. Maybe using a difference lens could remedy this?
    Great blog, by the way!

    Sirpa Kutilainen 13 May 2011 11.13am
    Yes you are definitely right there and this is a very good point to raise, so thank you! When digitising by using the medium of photography, the focal length definitely plays a big part in how the final digital object is represented in regards to sharpness, and to some extent colour representation too.
    The difficulty with photographing large flat objects, as a lot of these Gill pieces are, is that the camera needs to be a fair distance away from the item in question due to their size. Like you mentioned, this will always result in losing something in the process. Not only is the distance between the camera and the object an issue, but lens distortion also becomes a nuisance to tackle with and choosing the right lens can become more difficult.

    Cheryl Gallaway 13 May 2011 11.20am
    Hi, I recently came in to look at some original design documents from 60’s-80’s by Dutch Designer Wim Crouwel. I was very impressed that these have been archives and preserved, and felt very fortunate being able to see them in the flesh. Being a digital designer, whose work mainly resides in cuber space, I am particularly interested to see or even be a part of what happens next, future archiving. So I was encouraged to read how this is also being addressed at the Design Archives and really enjoy reading about it.
    For me preserving a physical archive that is vulnerable to decay is a wonderful thing. I wonder how digital decay will be addressed in the future when preserving digital design that exists only in browsers. Also in terms of access. There is a research just published on this, perhaps you might be interested in.
    Thanks again for sharing your findings online, they are an enjoyable read.

    Sirpa Kutilainen 13 May 2011 11.41am
    Thank you very much for the link, Cheryl. I will try and check that book out.
    Digital preservation is a massive subject to tackle and is something that seems to develop more every single day – there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight! We have reached a point where a CD might not be the best way to safe-keep digital files and the argument is that everything should be at least burned onto DVD’s. You then get into a situation where you also start to wonder how many back-up systems should you have in place and where these are stored. An interesting area of digitisation are also audio files on tapes and VHS footage.
    I am personally in a slightly strange place where I have worked in archival digitisation for 10 years but am now also passionate about the other side of the coin, the actually ‘stuff’ (so to speak) and what happens to it. At which point would you, for example, get rid of VHS tapes in a collection?
    Definitely a whole mine-field out there!

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