Wednesday 1 May 2024

A Significant Photographic Cataloguing Project


Fronticepiece from an Album
of Carte-de-visite Photographs
from the Collection. Dated 1881

My Blogs will be taking a break over the Winter months while I attempt to complete a significant photographic cataloguing project. 

I now have a reasonably final count of 8,326 photographic images which includes 1,824 colour slides, and 1,056 photographic negatives. The photographs date from the 1850's through to the 1980's, glass negatives that date from 1903 to approx 1918, and nitrate negatives dating from 1919. They chart not just family and friends over this period, but also a considerable emphasis on farming activites through the years, family events and special occasions, holiday travel, buildings, general scenes, and also a small but significant collection of photographs relating to early 1920's to mid 1920's Ministry of Works projects, my Grandfather then being employed for the Department as a Mechanical Engineer. 

Having such a large collection of family photographs, slides and negatives, I have done my best to bring some order into what was a rather disjointed collection. While many photos were in albums a great many were not identified in any way which made searching for people, places, dates, and events extremely difficult and time consuming. 

A Re-touched Glass Ambrotype
of my Great Great Grandmother.
Dated circa 1858

For seventeen years I worked in an Archive as a Photographic Archivist, also building and maintaining their website along with the creation of a number of useful databases. Without this cataloguing and computer experience I doubt I would have had the skills or determination to tackle such a monumental project. It is only now that the true benefits are beginning to emerge in regards to both easily finding images and also saving me a considerable amount of search time. My feeling also is that having fully catalogued the collection I am ensuring that it will be more useful and relevant in the future. And simply recording known information about photos will ensure that further information is not lost over time. This was especially important in regards to myself having a good knowledge of the overall collection as well as being virtually the last person alive who would actually recognize many people or events. I also appear to have extremely good recall of images, perhaps something I learnt in my previous career. And while I had an early book record for one large album, and which pre-dated having a computer, this did not exactly make searching any quicker.

Glass Negatives dating back to 1903 

My collection consists of many old photograph albums, board mounted photos, unmounted photos, slides, and glass, nitrate and rather more modern cellulose negatives. This is how I attempted such a daunting cataloguing and preservation project which may also aid others in undertaking such a process and without the need to spend a vast sum of money.

Photographic Cataloguing Procedures

1) Album and Photo Preparation :

This involved ensuring that all photos in old albums were secure. As traditional "lickable" photo corners are no longer available I imported photo corners from China (Aliexpress) and while these did not stick perfectly when turning pages a wipe with a non-toxic glue stick did the trick. While many photos had been pasted into the albums my preference is to be able to safely remove photos which definitely makes subsequent scanning easier and reduces the chances of toxic glue affecting the images. For loose photos I sorted these into approximate date order and placed them, using my photo corners, in acid free photo albums which I purchased from a commercial retailer. But I also often found some unused (and very good quality) acid free photo albums in charity shops. For photos in highly acidic "sticky page" albums I carefully removed them (where possible) without damaging the photos and then placed these in acid free albums.

For board mounted photographs I purchased acid free tissue to attach to the back of each photo and fold it over so it covers the image and provides some protection from rubbing. All board mounts were then placed in storage boxes.   

2) Album and Photo Numbering :

I then sequentially numbered all albums, in my case relating to the family collection they related to, eg "Dyk1", "Dyk2", "Dyk3" etc but any consecutive numbering sequence would have done. All images were then sequentially numbered within those album numbers, e.g.; Dyk.1.1, Dyk1.2, Dyk1.3 etc. Likewise, I sequentially numbered all board mounted photos, i.e., "BM1", "BM2" and so on.

Slides in their original metal case

3) Slide Scanning :

In this day and age, scanning of slides is the only realistic way to make use of small 35mm slides. But also, my old Agfa, Perutz and Hanimex slides were visibly degrading with significant colour shifts and "graininess" also becoming evident. Conversely my old Kodak colour slides have, by and large, survived the years extremely well. I do however have a number of Kodak Ektachrome slides (designed for low light conditions) from 1957 that have turned a reddish hue. Thank goodness for the scanner "Restore" function which did an acceptable job. But all this degradation aligns with what I have read about the stability of various slide brands, others having encountered the self same issues. So scanning was the only realistic long-term option before any more damage occurred. 

I personally bought a professional grade Epson V800 scanner as I had previously used this model in my archival career, but these can be expensive and the scanning process is quite technical and time consuming. I must admit that aftrer purchasing a new computer with a better quality screen I later re-scanned all my 1,824 colour slides including to a higher resolution (4,200 dpi Tif scans) as I could see that I had made a less than perfect job the first time round. Practice makes perfect! Professional scanning was an option and most businesses offer a bulk discount but having my own good quality scanner is my own personal preference as I will still need to scan prints and negatives into the future so the large financial outlay was, for me, justified.

Negatives placed in Acid Free Paper Pockets

4) Negatives :

Old negatives are valuable and usually provide a better quality image than the original print. With 1,056 old negatives dating back to 1919 it has taken me some time to match these to existing photographs. But I also discovered that there were many negatives of printable quality for which there were no prints, perhaps being sent to family and friends. 

In regards to storage, I purchased acid free A4 sized paper (which was not hugely expensive) and simply cut the paper to size and folded it to create negative pockets. I could then write negative numbers, the corresponding print number, and brief image details on each pocket. And again, all negatives were sequentially numbered. I did not cut up negatives in strips as the original sequence assists in both scanning and in accurate date cataloguing. I then placed all my negative packets in a lidded box (with an air hole for ventilation) and lined with acid free paper. Ideally I need to separate the older nitrate (and high inflammable) negatives from the post 1950's safety film negatives as the acidic nature of the former may hasten the degradation of the latter. It is quite interesting that although the earliest negatives, which date from 1919, are now brittle and yellow, I can still obtain a reasonable black and white scan which I can then tone in Photoshop before printing out.

I have left my approx. 63 old glass plate negatives, and which date back to 1902, in their original boxes but these are now numbered and in rough date order.

An Example of Photographic Cataloguing
from Excell Database

5) Cataloguing :

Having numbered all my images, I then created an Excell database with columns for each album, the board mounts, the slides, and the negatives, systematically recording the following information :

1) A brief photo title / heading. If a person, I just used a title, initials and surname.

2) Date taken (or an estimated date range)

3) Full image details such as where taken, who or what appears in the photo, and any notes that came with the photo. I recorded the full names of people here but tried to be consistent in using the same name format for each person, likewise with events.

4) Related image numbers, in other words, any photos taken at the same time.

5) Duplicate images noted and their numbers.

6) Extant negatives or photo scans and reference numbers. 

6) The Database :

With individual Excell databases for each album or series of images, which I have printed off and placed with each album, I am now able to create one digital Master Database. And all this is backed up in various places, including in online cloud storage. A simple "Control F" search, while not as good as a fully searchable database which only throws up the results you want, still provides a perfectly cost-effective and acceptable result, even if you have to scroll through the results.  

An Original Album from Mid 1920's

7) Scanning :

While I have, as previously noted, scanned my colour slides and also my old glass negatives, I have no intention of scanning the individual photographs as this would be an extremely time consuming task with no great measurable benefit. But when images are subsequently used and scanned I can now store the digital files under their respective photo or negative numbers for ease of future reference.

Older circa post 1967 colour negatives have noticeably degraded, as have their respective prints, so scanning these would again serve little purpose for the time taken. The "restoration" and "Digital Ice" functions on scanners are good but unfortunately cannot perform miracles. Earlier 1960's colour negatives and prints are actually not too bad which is probably due to changes in chemical formulations and the standard of original processing.

Part of the Complete Collection

Conclusion :

So, while exceedingly time consuming, and in fact a few years of intensive work (hence my lack of Blogs over this period), I hope that my efforts will ensure that this collection will remain useful and a good source for research into the future. It has already greatly aided me in more easily finding photographs, both for myself and for others. But as can be seen, other than an expensive scanner, I have not spent a large amount of money on this project, simply a large amount of my time.

I will attempt to resume my Blog posts after Winter and have in fact been making notes of some interesting subjects that pop into my head, again almost always inspired by objects or ephemera in my own collections. I am happy to answer any questions and enjoy receiving feedback, either on the post or via Email by using the "Email Me" link in the right-hand menu bar. To avoid spam you will see when the Email link appears that you need to change the [at] to the "@" symbol.

I have, even over the last twelve months, received some fascinating emails from readers of my Blogs, both having alerted them to information of which they were unaware or where our research interests happily co-incide. It is feedback like this that makes the considerable time and effort taken to research and write these Blogs all the more worthwhile.