Documerica: Seeing the Seventies More Clearly

Today’s blog post comes from Hannah Fenster, summer intern with the Public Affairs Office.

Ever wonder why your photographs of the 1970s are slowly changing color? Hint: They don’t want makeovers or need more fuchsia in their lives. More likely, their aging appearances come from the original film type and from years of storage at room temperature.

The National Archives used an elaborate process to produce top-quality, fully restored photographs for the exhibit “DOCUMERICA: Searching for the Seventies,” which runs through September 8. The National Archives stores the original images as slides in cold storage to minimize the color shift.

Need caption
The image on the left is the “before”; on the right is the “after.”The original caption reads “Inexpensive retirement hotels are a hallmark of the South Beach area. A favored place is the front porch, where residents sit and chat or watch the activities on the beach.” Flip Shulke, June 1973 (National Archives 412-DA-6139)

I spoke with Michelle Farnsworth, digital imaging technician at the National Archives, to discuss the process of resurrecting the photos for exhibition.

To transfer the images from stored slides to shiny exhibit frames, technicians began by scanning the slides into a digitized format at the Digital Imaging Lab at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

The scanned versions underwent some preliminary color editing. “We weren’t trying to make them look punchier,” says Farnsworth, “we were trying to make them neutral, to match what we saw on the slides or the documents.”

Amanda Perez, exhibit and graphic designer, then enhanced the color and contrast, cleaned up dust spots and scratches, and further neutralized what color shifts had occurred over the years. Editing to this extent is rare, Farnsworth says. “Normally we don’t take too much artistic license in editing the images, but we weren’t showing the originals in the exhibit. We were showing prints, which are an artist’s interpretation of the slide.”

The top image is the “before” print, and the bottom is the current print on exhibit. The original caption reads “Abandoned automobiles and other debris clutter and acid water and oil filled pond. It was cleaned up under EPA supervision to prevent possible contamination of Great Salt Lake and a wildlife refuge nearby.” Bruce McAllister, near Ogden, Utah, April 1974. (National Archives, 412-DA-13397)

Farnsworth, who regularly makes scans and facsimiles for National Archives exhibits, created small test prints of each featured image. She took them to the gallery to examine the color design under the light of the display.

“There were no guidelines,” says Farnsworth about the criteria for the photos’ color adjustments. “There’s not a lot you can do but trust your eyes, make more test prints, and see how they all look. I did feel a bit of pressure to adjust [the photos] to what most people think looks good. It’s subtle.”

Farnsworth spent six full work days running back and forth from the printer to the gallery, experimenting to determine the best color scheme for each photo. “Eventually you have to make a decision—do you want it a little bit pinker or a little bit bluer?” she laughs.

Finally, Farnsworth says, once she felt happy with each photograph’s color, “out they all came from the printer!”

See the 1970s more clearly in our DOCUMERICA images now on exhibit through September 8, 2013, or order the catalog.

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