January 31, 2007

Heritage Project

I started a long-awaited project this month. It’s to digitize the collection of 35mm slides and 16mm movies that I inherited from my grandfather when he passed away over twenty years ago. I’ve lugged them around ever since. They were taken over several decades (I’m not sure of the entire scope), at least the Thirties through the Fifties. It’s a sizable collection: over 3500 slides and approximately 8000 feet of film.

After some research, I settled on scanning the slides myself and sending the movies out to a service. So, just after Christmas, I purchased a Nikon Coolscan V ED slide and film scanner. I’ve had it a couple of weeks now and have scanned over 100 slides (this will take a while). The process is easy enough and the scanner has enough controls to do a pretty good job with some of these very old slides.

My grandfather was a dedicated amateur photographer, taking slides, prints, and movies. Nearly all of the photos I have of myself as a baby and young boy are his. He wasn’t, however, an exceptional technician; he’s somewhat famous in the family for his poorly composed shots. I think some of that is unfair, but I’ve run across quite a few oddly composed, hopelessly underexposed, or just hopeless (a lit up window from inside a dark building, for instance) shots in the few that I’ve so far processed. Still, the idea isn’t so much to find a hidden masterpiece as to see some of what he saw, to understand what he saw as important. And that comes through pretty strongly, even this early in the process.

The best examples are a couple of movies that I was able to screen before the projector (also an antique) quit on me. One was a terrible-looking, technically speaking, shot of a lit-up Christmas tree. There was no color, just light and dark, but as I watched the camera pan over the tree, I imagined that my grandfather wanted to film this, not so much because the film would preserve or communicate the sight, but because it anchored the memory of something beautiful. The other example included both my father and his brother, but in a strange way, so that I had a hint of something new in the, somewhat troubled, relationship that my father shared with his.

I haven’t come across anything that striking in the slides, so far (only a few thousand to go), but I have seen some interesting images. I’ve selected a sample to share here. These were all taken, as near as I can tell, in 1947 (at least they were in a box from the processor with a 1947 postmark on them). My grandfather was stationed in Alaska during the Second World War, in the Aleutians (the only part North America occupied by Japan, though down at the far end of the chain), and I presume that these images are from there. I find the colors and the strength of the images interesting and impressive. (Click on the images to see a slightly larger version.)

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