200,000 slides, part 2

It’s been a while since I wrote the introductory post “200,000 slides” on how we might approach the digitization of Hugh Morton’s slides. There’s been a lot happening on this front, but doing that work and then the holidays have delayed my next installment on the topic. I’ll try to keep the posts short and frequent over the upcoming days.
The close of my initial post ended with a set of questions, the last of which was, “And the most challenging and most difficult question, . . . how do you scan 200,000 slides?”
Well, how do you scan 200,000 slides?
There are at least two points to explore in order to answer that question: on what machine and to what resolution? I experimented with two approaches available to us with the equipment on-hand: a dedicated film scanner and a flatbed scanner. Today’s post focuses on the film scanner.
The best quality film scanner available to us is the Nikon Coolscan 9000 ED, which produces scans at 4,000 pixels per inch. We scan at sixteen bits using the eight-pass setting to produce a high quality scan. That resolution easily produces 20×24-inch high-quality inkjet prints on our printer, an Epson Stylus Pro 7800, at 360 dots per inch. (Did you just find yourself saying, “Huh?” If so, Scantips.com is one of many Web sites that can help you!)
Each scan takes about ninety seconds, with a short interval between scans. The scanner can handle only five slides per batch, however, so here’s the disappointing math:
200,000 slides x 90 seconds = 18,000,000 seconds or 5,000 hours, which is 625 eight-hour work days—well over three years.
And that’s just raw scan time without counting the time it takes to set up each slide’s appearance using the scanner’s software, which is considerable. Simply stated, a Nikon Coolscan is not designed to work in such a high-volume environment. High-end film scanners, such as a Hasselblad Flextight, do have batch loaders that handle up to 50 slides, but the added expense of that machine buys you higher resolution—8,000 pixels per inch—not speed. With voluminous slide collections, speed is of the essence!
Link to Part 3
Sports Car Climb, Grandfather Mountain, circa mid 1950s.

200,000 slides

What would do you do with 200,000 slides?
Hang gliding, circa January 1978.
While trying to figure this out for myself, and posterity, I keep hearing two Paul Simon lyrics running in my head:

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day


Slip sliding away, slip sliding away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip sliding away

No, I’m not going to jump off a cliff, although I did do that once—and then a bridge later that afternoon—in New Zealand during my younger years. Instead I’ve taken my adventuresome spirit to the computer keyboard and scanner. I’ve already written about six pages in a strategic plan and several longish emails about my exploration of this topic—and there’s likely more words to come. And I’ve sat in front of flatbed and film scanners running tests, because we are trying to bring 21st century technology into the solution to make processing the Morton collection more efficient. But when I try to think the process through completely, the solution seems to get more difficult. On one level—a bird’s eye view—the idea is very basic; as I start to apply more details to the picture—as I drop in elevation to reveal more nuances in the landscape—the technological solution seems to slip away.
During my afternoon break a few days ago I realized that, if I could explain the issues to those of you reading the blog, I could perhaps break this complex topic into simpler parts. So that’s what I’m going to try to do over the course of several blog entries. (I’m afraid one extremely long entry would keep you from ever wanting to return!) So let’s start from the sky and work our way down to ground level.


The ultimate goal of processing these slides is to make them accessible to users, and these days that means online via the World Wide Web in addition to the physical objects. To make the slides accessible, I first needed to sort and organize them because, initially, there was “neither rhyme nor reason” to the way we found the slides. Mostly stored in their original boxes, there were also many loose slides or small batches wrapped in paper, rubber bands, or in odd boxes. And several presentations are still in Kodak Slide Carousels or even the older Cavalcade Slide Trays. Because most of the slides, by far, have a date stamped on the mount by the photographic lab that processed the film, I sorted the original slide boxes by year, one year per shelf in the stacks. Needless to say the boxes stretch from floor to ceiling—and in any other direction I could put them. With that completed, I then started sorting the loose slides by year, then film type (usually Ektachrome and Kodachrome), then by month and, within month by the red or black ink used for the date stamp. I learned I could do this surprisingly quickly, faster than trying to sort scanned images on a screen, so long as I didn’t look at the images. As soon as I pause to look at an image, the sort stalls in the water.
You may be asking two questions: why sort by film type first, and why sort to the level of specificity of red or black date stamps? Well, for the first question there are two reasons. First, whatever scanner we use will likely have different technical settings called “profiles” for different photographic emulsions. If we batch scan a set of slides that are all Ektachrome or all Kodachrome, then the post-scan tonal corrections will be more consistent and more easily regulated. The second reason has to do with reuniting the loose slides with those still in the original box—what I’ve been calling a slide’s “mother box.” If I look at the contents of a box and see that its contents are Ektachrome slides, I can go right to that shorter stack and have fewer slides to examine to see if there any slides that can be returned to their mother box. The specificity of the red and black date stamps follows this same logic: if I open a box and all the slides within it are Kodachromes stamped “May 65” in red ink, then I’ve got far fewer slides through which I’ll have to search. I can make these distinctions much more quickly during the initial sort than I can during a subsequent search.
The traditional way photographers sort slides is on a light box or a light table. Taking a magnifier called a loupe, you look at the images and make selections based upon certain criteria like proper exposure and focus, composition, and people’s eyes being open. Archivists may do the same, calling into play more criteria, such as repetition. Photographers generally work a subject from different angles and with different lenses, and bracket their exposures when they can. This means, for example, that Hugh Morton could have shot an entire roll of film just of a single flower. How many photographs of that single flower would we need to keep? How many would a researcher want to examine? Would an archivist in a history collection keep as many as an archivist in a botany collection?
If I were to look at each slide on a light box for five seconds in order to assess them, here’s the math: 200,000 x 5 = 1,000,000 seconds.
One million seconds! That’s equivalent to about 175 eight-hour work days. (I wonder how hungry or bored I’d be by lunchtime on the first day? Or how my back would feel hunched over a light box all day?) And those five seconds do not include the time to lay the slides on the light box in a readable fashion nor the time to gather them and put them back in the original box. So in round figures, it could take one year to look at all the slides—so long as I did nothing else on those days other than eat lunch.
But what if I digitally scanned each slide without selecting in advance which ones should be scanned? Could I preview and edit images faster (and spare my back) on a large computer screen? From a labor savings standpoint, would scanning everything be more cost effective than the staff time necessary to review each slide and make a decision? What if I threw away the scans I didn’t want to keep because that was faster and cheaper than evaluating and discarding the unneeded slides? Or what if we made all the scans available on the Internet and let researchers decide what was important or useful to their needs? And the most challenging and most difficult question, . . . how do you scan 200,000 slides?
My next post on the topic will explore some of these questions. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll be able to write a song about all this!

Memorial for JFK, May 1964

Rose Kennedy during memorial for John F. Kennedy at Kenan Stadium, 17 May 1964.
Tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, marks the forty-fourth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Six months after his death, on Sunday, 17 May 1964, the state of North Carolina held a memorial service for Kennedy in Kenan Stadium on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
In an effort to raise money for the Kennedy presidential library, “a living memorial,” each state pledged to raise funds. Governor Terry Sanford set the state’s goal at $230,000 (the eqivalent of $1.5 million in 2007 dollars), and Hugh Morton chaired North Carolina’s fund raising effort. An estimated 12,000 people attended the memorial, paying $10.00 (about $65.00 today) to attend and contribute toward the goal. As the date drew near, the governor announced that students were to be admitted free of charge because it was determined that sufficient contributions from the community had been raised. The News and Observer noted in its report the following day that no other state in the country had yet to raise money by public subscription, and that eighty percent of the state’s goal had been met.
The memorial featured a tribute by Billy Graham and addresses by Governor Terry Sanford; Luther H. Hodges, former North Carolina governor and then current United States Secretary of Commerce; and Senator Edward Kennedy, brother of John F. Kennedy. In the photograph above, Rose Kennedy, mother of the former president, is seated on the platform with Hugh Morton (left) and Terry Sanford (right). There are several slides of the event in the collection, but the photographer is unknown.

"It's a big noise."

Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band on Grandfather Mountain, 1961
“They weren’t designed to be played in recording studios. They were designed to be played on the tops of mountains,” the voice-over said on the radio as bagpipes in the background played “Amazing Grace.” I stopped making my morning tea when I heard that. A Hugh Morton photograph just flashed in my memory. “There’s no escaping that collection!,” I thought (in a good way).
I was listening to NPR early Sunday morning when that promotional spot for Weekend Edition Sunday aired, but Ollie, my dog, needed to be walked and I missed the story. Fortunately NPR posts its news programs on its Web site so if you missed it too, you can hear “Royal Scots Dragoon Records ‘Spirit of the Glen'” featuring the album’s producer Jon Cohen. Cohen talks about the challenges of working with the military band, and how orchestrating the sound of bagpipes compares to producing recordings for bands as diverse as the Backstreet Boys and the OperaBabes.
The Hugh Morton photograph that came to mind Sunday morning is actually a postcard in the Durwood Barbour Postcard Collection. It depicts a group of bagpipers and drummers on top of Grandfather Mountain during the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. See the North Carolina Collection’s short history about the games in the “This Month In North Carolina History” entry written this past August. And now would be as good a time as any to mention the large ongoing project of digitized North Carolina postcards by the NCC staff.
You know, the strands of serendipity wend their ways on the strangest paths. I did a bit of fruitless searching for the original color slide, so I asked Elizabeth if one of those boxes you see on the table in her post, “A Processor’s Perspective,” had any Highland Games negatives. She pointed to the box and I grabbed the first envelope I saw with black-and-white negatives (easier to scan!) labeled “’61 Games—GMTN.” Inside were several 120 format (2-1/4 inch square) negatives, and one looked very similar to the post card. I scanned it, but the image had some lens flare across a bagpiper’s face so I dismissed it. I did noticed, however, that a bass drum in the upper left corner had on its skin: “Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band.” It was the last negative on a roll of film—the only image of the group on the mountaintop—and it’s not like Hugh Morton to command a group of people to very tip of the mountain only to make one exposure. So I went back to the box to see if there was another envelope from 1961. There was, labeled “Highland Games ’61”; it did not, however, have any more images of the band.
I started my search anew for a different image. Further down in the box was a blank envelope on which Elizabeth had penciled a note: “H.G. late 50s-e.60s.” (That’s archivist talk for Highland Games, late 1950s or early 1960s). I peeked inside and saw three 4×5-inch black-and-white negatives and some 120 negatives. Wouldn’t you know it? One of the 4×5 negatives was the Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band. I scanned that negative and prepared it for loading onto the blog, cropping the image to my liking.
For my post, I wanted to link to the Durwood Barbour postcard and draw your attention to that project, which includes several Hugh Morton postcards. I searched for the image and found it. Would you believe the postcard in the Durwood Barbour collection shows the very same Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band?! The postcard doesn’t state that, nor the date of the image. We can now add that information to the postcard’s descriptive information.
Do you think there’s any coincidence that my brother graduated from Carnegie-Mellon and that my father was an assistant football coach there for twenty years? I don’t know, but if my best friend from high school calls me up one day soon and says, “I never mentioned this before, but my father played the bagpipes on Grandfather Mountain during his Carnegie Tech days,” I’m going to get the shivers.
Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band on Grandfather Mountain, 1961

New Orleans, 1945

Canal Street at night, New Orleans, 1945

Why feature photographs made in New Orleans in 1945 by a North Carolina photographer? Because they are great examples of the hidden riches that await us! They also serve as good samples to explore the far reaches of blogging on the Internet as an aid in processing a photograph collection. Plus, Hugh Morton loved jazz.
The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, ran an article on Sunday, 27 September 1942 about Morton’s return to campus to photograph the prior day’s football game for the paper before his Tuesday entrance as a technical sergeant in the Army’s photography division. The feature also noted that Morton reminisced on how he “got his start at Carolina by taking pictures of Hal Kemp, University alumnus.” James Hal Kemp (1904-1940), who attended UNC from 1922 to 1926 but did not graduate, was one of the most noted “sweet-swing” band leaders of the 1930s. (Kemp’s papers are in the Southern Historical Collections in Wilson Library). The article stated that Morton was so pleased with his photographs that, “He now has pictures of every nationally known band in the country with over 100 snaps of Benny Goodman, some of which have appeared in Downbeat, music magazine.” We’ll be keeping all four of our eyes open for those.
The photographs featured in this post are found in an envelope that contains twenty negatives and is labeled, simply, “New Orleans.” One of those negatives is a night scene looking down Bourbon Street. On the right is the The Old Absinthe House Bar and farther down the street is Club Bali; on the left is the Famous Door Cocktail Lounge. The automobile license plates on the right are dated 1945, confirming the date on Godchaux’s marquee in the image above.

Bourbon Street at night, New Orleans, 1945

What was happening with Hugh Morton in 1945? He was wounded in March, a few days after photographing General Douglas MacArthur reviewing the 25th Division on New Caledonia, and received his honorable discharge from the United States Army on 30 June. He married Julia Taylor on 8 December.
Within the batch of New Orleans negatives are a few outdoor scenes depicting a couple wearing longer coats, suggesting he was there during a colder time of the year. Duke University’s football team defeated the University of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on January 1st. Perhaps Morton was there to photograph the football game? Thus far we’ve not located any negatives of that event. Maybe he was on leave? One negative depicts a group seated in a hotel room: Morton in civilian clothes, another man in a military uniform, and two women.

Captain John Handy, New Orleans, 1945.

Whatever the date of his visit, Morton headed to the jazz clubs with camera in hand and he photographed three performances. Only one set is identifiable from the content: two negatives of Captain John Handy (1900-1971) and an unidentified upright bass player.

Captain John Handy, New Orleans, 1945.

A second setting records another group, apparently a quintet, the only recognizable character being the bopping Santa above the stage backdrop. Santa says it might still be around New Year’s Day.

Jazz quintet, New Orleans, 1945

To round out the photographs of jazz musicians, here’s an unidentified piano player in what appears to be yet a third club setting:

Piano player, New Orleans, 1945

Any jazz historians out there who can place a name to some of these unnamed faces?

From Grandfather Mountain to Chapel Hill

Hugh Morton standing next to an enlarger.

The life’s work of photographer Hugh Morton has a new home: the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It took two trips in four vans filled to the gills to bring it all from the Morton residence near Grandfather Mountain to the university where Morton spent his freshman through junior years as a student. His enlistment in the United States Army in September 1942, at the outset of his senior year, pulled him away to the Pacific and on to what became a celebrated life, but he returned to the campus he loved time and time and time again—and likely always with his camera.
It’s also likely that Morton had his camera with him everywhere else he went. We all look for something to “click” in our lives; for Hugh Morton it was his cameras’ shutters. We think he clicked them about half a million times. It takes a lot of shutter clicks to fill four vans. Morton made many photographs and shot a lot of motion picture film, too. It will take a good deal of time—measured in years—to organize and make available for use the results of so much clicking. Sometimes I “shutter” just thinking about it.
There is so much interest in the Morton collection. The first inquiries started before we opened more than a handful of boxes. The time needed to make such a voluminous collection available compared to the demand for its use beckoned for a non-traditional approach to collection processing. The way it’s “supposed” to be done is to open the collection only once it is completed. To make material accessible as soon as possible, we are planning to make parts of the collection available incrementally as we complete them.
We also needed a way to keep people informed about our progress and offer glimpses into the collection’s wealth. We are enthused by the public interest and want to transform it into community involvement. So we developed this blog to meet those needs and we hope it “clicks” with you!