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Saving old memories


The school I work at will be 60 years old in 2017 – a pretty decent milestone for a school, though there are many older schools here in Cape Town. As with any institution that has survived this long, there are bound to be many old photos of events in years gone by. A school is a very busy place with hundreds of events each year: sports matches, outings, camps, tours domestically and/or internationally, dramatic presentations, musicals, concerts, prizegivings and more all lead to many potential photographic opportunities.

Unfortunately, for the last 30 years or so, the school has largely relied on one person to take photos and keep a visual record of the school: my direct boss. From when he arrived in the mid 1980’s through to today, he has been building up a massive collection of photos. Since 2004, all the photos have been taken digitally, so there is a good archive that has built up the last 11 years. However, prior to that, everything in the school was done on 35mm film and this is where the problem comes in. All the photos on colour slides are in a slow race against time to be preserved. All colour slides will discolour and fade in time, more so if they are not stored properly. Once the colours are gone (or shifted too badly to rescue,) all the unique memories on those pieces of plastic are gone forever. Colour negatives are a bit more stable if stored in the plastic strips they came from the photo store. Black and white negatives are probably the most stable of the lot.

At the end of 2014 through a chance discussion with the school librarian, I discovered that there was a batch of slides sitting in a box in one of her cupboards. I asked her if I could take them to start scanning them, as we luckily have a Canon scanner that can scan slides and negatives. I was thinking of having them professionally scanned by a specialised company here in Cape Town, but the price would quickly become prohibitive for the number of slides that needed to be converted. As such, I’ve been slowly chipping away at the first box of slides, scanning them at 4800 dpi and saving the resulting large JPEG file. My boss has promised to colour correct and touch up these slides in Lightroom/Photoshop Elements when I am done scanning, after which we can upload these photos to our dedicated Past Pupils page on Facebook.

So far I’ve managed to scan about 165 slides, most of which I’ve taken out the holders to do so, especially the glass ones. It’s become clear that many of the photos were soft or slightly out of focus when taken originally, but it probably wasn’t noticed at the time. Also, 30 odd years of age on the film itself also doesn’t help either. There’s still a pile of probably about a hundred to go, though I’ve managed to whittle out private slides of my boss or slides that were too far gone to bother rescuing.

With the end of that box in sight, I went back to the library last week looking for anything more. As many slides as there were in the first box, they only cover a small time period of the school’s history – 3 or 4 years at the most in the 1980’s. After some more scratching and an impromptu spring clean by the librarian, I took possession of another box of slides, as well as dozens of packets of negatives, both colour and monochrome as well as some printed photos. Once the initial box of slides are done, I can focus on the negatives. Thankfully, scanning the negatives will be a little less time consuming, for the simple reason that I no longer need to take the film out of holders. I simply mount the strip of 4 negatives and scan away, estimating a saving of about 5 minutes per batch.

The biggest downside of the 35mm products is that in today’s digital world, you cannot share the memories on those pieces of plastic if you don’t digitise them. Digitised, you can share them online as well as use them inside the school for projection during events. Projecting slides today isn’t impossible, but getting a slide projector isn’t easy, not to mention that the mere act of displaying the slides will reduce their lifespan even more due to the heat of the lamp. For archival purposes, having the photos in JPEG format allows the files to be replicated all over the show, avoiding any one point of failure. If the film is damaged and destroyed, there is nothing to fall back on, especially in the case of slides. While JPEG isn’t up to true archival quality or standards, in computing terms it’s probably the closest thing there is. Every consumer operating system since Windows 95 can view the files, which is a good 20 year track record now. It’s of course nowhere near film’s 130+ years of service, but for now, it’s a good enough solution.

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