Firsts and Frontiers

Latest update July 17, 2019 Started on April 24, 2018

For 130 years the National Geographic Society has been on the
forefront of exploration, scientific discoveries, and documenting the world around us, in the process creating a treasure trove of knowledge about our planet. So how do we go about maintaining this knowledge, ensuring that people will still be able to access it, 130 years from now and beyond?

April 24, 2018
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In The Field

Happy 50th anniversary of our first trip to the Moon! Fifty years ago this week, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins made history by successfully executing their mission to land on the Moon. Armstrong’s famous words, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind," were transmitted back the astronauts’ rapt audience on earth. Among those watching this pinnacle of achievement in the Space Race were the National Geographic reporters and photographers, who shared in the sense of pride and wonder evident in the images and video of the army of NASA scientists and engineers who worked to make the landing happen. Nat Geo had spent almost a decade covering the American space program, and its main players came to know the men and women behind that spectacular moment, as well as the celebrity astronauts at the fore, quite well.

National Geographic photographer Otis Imboden, who was stationed with his family at Cape Canaveral as Nat Geo’s liaison with NASA beginning in 1961, served as an official Apollo program photographer. Ken Weaver remained in close contact with astronauts and other NASA employees as the main writer covering the space program. National Geographic also continued to participate in the Manned Space Photo pool with other news outlets, such as LIFE magazine and the Associated Press, and cooperated with NASA to record and disseminate images from their missions. Thanks to this press pool, the National Geographic Society archives holds tens of thousands of images from space program coverage in addition to those taken by photographers working solely on behalf of National Geographic.

alt Astronauts Edwin Aldrin, Jr., and Neil Armstrong sit in their shirtsleeves at the controls of the lunar module simulator. Photograph by NASA Press Pool.

alt A technician helps Michael Collins from spacecraft after he and Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, Jr. participated in a countdown demonstration test. Photograph by NASA Press Pool.

Writer Ken Weaver continued to send National Geographic flags to the astronauts flying the Apollo missions, keeping the tradition of sending the flag to the ends of the earth (and beyond) with the explorers and expeditions Nat Geo sponsored. According to a 1970 letter to Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, the flag accompanied astronauts on the Apollo 8, 11, and 12 missions. In that same letter, Weaver noted, “A good many people, unfortunately, are beginning to take the moon flights as routine. Those of us who are a little closer to the program know how much risk is involved each time, no matter how many others have made the trip. All of us here at the Geographic will be watching with keen interest, and you will carry with you all of our prayers and best wishes for a successful return.” Weaver’s words proved to be almost prophetic, given the dramatic equipment failure of the Apollo 13 mission and the risk that became very tangible to all watching and hoping for a safe return. His letters, and indeed all of the correspondence between the Geographic and NASA, are a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the scientists, writers, and photographers who brought the wonders of space exploration and technology to people all over the world.

alt Kenneth Weaver, dressed in a pressure suit, asks a technician questions about his apparel. Photograph by Otis Imboden

alt Letter from Ken Weaver to Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell. Original held by National Geographic Archives

Over the past year, the DPA team has rehoused, inventoried, and begun the daunting process of digitizing all of our space material, which will comprise a digital Space Collection of approximately 15,000-20,000 items. For all of us, the Apollo 11 coverage feels a little surreal: the faces, voices, and stories we’ve been immersed in for several months are now all over TV and social media as American society commemorates this achievement. Speaking as an archivist, that’s a pretty rare experience for most of us! However, when the rest of the world returns to its regularly scheduled programming, we’ll still be in the basement of the National Geographic Society, digitizing twenty years of National Geographic space exploration coverage. We’ll also continue to keep you up to date on other major space exploration anniversaries over on our space history expedition, To the Moon and Back.

Don’t forget to join us next month to see what we’re working on in addition to the Space Collection! August might be a good time to see what’s going on over in the Chesapeake Bay…

“Dr. Grosvenor feels it is in the national interest that as fine a color pictorial record as possible be made of the pre-flight preparations, and flights, of the Mercury Astronauts. Good photographs made at that time will be historical documents to future generations.” - Letter to Larry Hastings from Allan Fisher, February 1, 1960

The Digital Preservation Archive team has spent the past several months inventorying, digitizing, and rehousing our approximately 12,000 photographs that comprise the Space Collection, our photographic record of the United States’ space program from 1960 through the 1980s. Though we’ve featured several images from this collection on the blog in various technical posts, the story of why we have a Space Collection in the first place is certainly worth telling.

National Geographic was, by 1960, a longstanding and venerable institution with an impressive track record for supporting all kinds of exploration, from expeditions under the ocean, to both the North and South Poles, and even into the Stratosphere. To the Society’s 11th president, Dr. Melville Grosvenor, it made perfect sense for Nat Geo to become involved in documenting the U.S. space program. Dr. Grosvenor was well-known amongst society staff for his childlike curiosity and enthusiasm for exploration. This same enthusiasm that brought the work of the Leakeys, Jacques Cousteau, and Jane Goodall to the public proved a solid foundation for National Geographic’s extensive coverage of the “last frontier”: space. A letter to NASA in February outlined Grosvenor’s plan--the Geographic’s best photographer, Luis Marden, would work essentially as an unpaid NASA employee in order to document the space program from “behind-the-scenes.” NASA quickly agreed to this arrangement, with Dean Conger to serve as Marden’s “pinch-hitter” in case Marden was unavailable.

Marden and Conger soon ran into a few difficulties--as de facto government employees, their ability to follow the story was somewhat limited, as NASA adhered to strict guidelines regarding their subject matter. For example, a letter from Dean Conger reveals that at one point, he was only allowed to photograph astronauts. Every shot, even of technicians working or the equipment itself, had to include an astronaut somewhere. Memos from Geographic editors also expressed concern for the film shot by Marden and Conger; it was frequently used for slideshows and became damaged before prints could be made, and on a few notable occasions went missing altogether. This was quite a change for the Nat Geo men, particularly for the independently-minded and headstrong Marden. However, despite this rocky start (or perhaps because of it), NGS soon made the decision to station one of its young photographers, Otis Imboden, in Cape Canaveral for full-time, dedicated coverage of NASA “in order to firmly establish the Geographic interest and participation in covering, from an editorial rather than spot news viewpoint, all important phases of our space program.”

According to a memo from Head of Photography Jim Godbold, Imboden was a prime candidate to serve as the main liaison between NGS and the government (“He has demonstrated a rare ability to get along well with people”). Imboden set up shop in Cape Canaveral in 1961 and began sending regular reports back to headquarters in DC. Once he settled into life at the Cape, Imboden worked closely with other members of the press pool, which included photogs from LIFE magazine, the AP, and other major agencies dedicated to covering NASA’s exciting ventures down on the Florida coast; though technically competitors, they all shared a notable dedication to photographic excellence, and even founded a shared NASA pool photo lab in 1962.

While Imboden served as the main Geographic presence in the Cape, various NGM writers also kept in close contact with NASA and its astronauts as they sought to keep America informed about these brand-new celebrities and their adventures. The most notable National Geographic journalist to cover the space program was Ken Weaver, originally a legends writer who was pulled into NASA coverage in the early 1960s. Weaver covered the space program into the 1970s, with his first article on the subject, “Countdown to Space,” published in 1961. Weaver recounted his time writing about the space race in an oral history with the Archives, reminiscing that covering the subject for Nat Geo was often a challenge due to extremely long lead times and competing publications: “The only way we could meet that challenge was by having spectacular pictures and we had good photographers who could take care of that and by doing stories in much greater depth than anyone else was willing to do.”

Weaver and Imboden both rose to the challenge of space coverage admirably, spending much of their time getting to know astronauts that would soon become household names, such as Alan Shepherd and John Glenn. They often used these close relationships to their advantage. In a letter to Glenn dated January 1962, Weaver included a small National Geographic flag and urged Glenn to find a way to carry it on his historic orbital flight around the globe, writing “I am most seriously suggesting and urging that you find some way to carry this with you on your flight. It is so tiny and so light that it could not possibly be a problem; it might even be pinned to your longies.” He also admitted that this personal request went around the official channels between the government and NASA, noting that “many things are possible in this life when they are done unofficially, whereas they might have to be vetoed if they come up for official approval.”

Officially and unofficially, the National Geographic Society and the U.S. space program would continue a long and fruitful relationship for many years. As we continue processing and digitizing our Space Collection, we’ll share more behind-the-scenes tales from photographers and writers. Stay tuned for some great stories from the Apollo missions next month!

Great summary Julie!

When you go to school to be an archivist, one of the first things you learn is that the most challenging parts of the job probably won’t be covered in your classes. I learned a lot in my program, but I had no idea that color science, specifically color management, would quickly become a part of my day-to-day job. To that end, I’m still learning about all of this, so please forgive any mistakes here.

Color management is as much of an art as it is a science, and vice-versa. Here I’ll attempt to give a very high-level explanation of why something that sounds fairly straightforward, like making sure a certain red looks the same regardless of which camera captures it and how it is displayed, can rapidly grow complex. The website Cambridge in Colour gives a good, basic analogy for how and why colors need to be carefully managed: color, like taste, is a sensory experience, and everyone (and every device) senses things differently. For example, a dish that tastes moderately spicy to you might taste extra spicy to me, or not very spicy to another person. To quote their example:

To solve your spiciness dilemma, you could undergo a one-time taste test where you eat a series of dishes, with each containing slightly more peppers. You could then create a personalized table to carry with you at restaurants which specifies that 3 equals "mild," 5 equals "medium," and so on (assuming that all peppers are the same). Next time, when you visit a restaurant and say "medium," the waiter could look at your personal table and translate this into a standardized concentration of peppers. This waiter could then go to the cook and say to make the dish "extra mild," knowing all too well what this concentration of peppers would actually mean to the cook. -Cambridge in Color Overview of Color Management

This is basically what we do to manage color for the objects we digitize using our 100MP PhaseOne iXG camera and DT Photon LED light source: we create an ICC profile that translates how the camera “sees” color in our particular lighting setup and environment into standardized values by using a color checker, a device specially built to check color accuracy. The color checker, which has absolute color values assigned to its different patches, is imaged and then run through a software program that characterizes how the camera senses and outputs color based on these values. Much like the spiciness example above, this profile tells the camera how colors should render based on an objective measurement. Along with a specially-built digital camera, a very carefully controlled environment, and highly specialized lighting, an ICC profile characterized to those factors allows us to consistently reproduce our physical objects as accurately as possible in a digital format. alt The three targets used to create custom ICC profiles based on material type

Up to this point, we have been using the ICC profile created by Digital Transitions, our equipment vendor, that was included with our cultural heritage imaging setup that is tailored to our DT Photon LED lights. While this profile did a very respectable job of rendering accurate color, creating a profile on our own equipment in our imaging environment helped us push our color management for reflective materials from good to excellent. However, our most exciting leap forward in color management is creating profiles to more precisely match the colors present in transmissive color film.

The many different formats that we digitize—documents, photographic prints, bound materials, negatives, slides, etc.—all have distinct workflows and guidelines for optimal imaging. As I mentioned in my last post on Nat Geo’s history of using Kodachrome film, digitizing Kodachrome (and Ektachrome) transmissive film is an entirely different beast than digitizing reflective materials like photographic prints and documents. The dyes used to produce Kodachrome and Ektachrome, as well as other color film, used specific color palettes that could look quite different from one another; over Nat Geo’s many decades, photographers used their color palette preferences, as well as other factors, to decide which film to use.

To correctly capture these color palettes, we have acquired specialized calibration targets that accurately reproduce the dye colors used in the film. These targets include the absolute measurements of the color patches that the profiling software uses to match the camera colors, which allows us to generate a much more informationally complete digital preservation object. Luckily for us, National Geographic generally stuck to Kodak products, so the majority of the photo archive’s slide collection is on Kodachrome and Ektachrome film. Acquiring good calibration targets for discontinued film processes can be tricky, but we were able to locate both a Kodachrome and Ektachrome target that are in pretty good shape. Based on conversations with other colleagues implementing similar processes, we suspected that the results would make a noticeable difference in the color quality of the digital images; this hypothesis proved correct.

While we are far from the first folks to digitize film and recognize that profiling to specific color palettes is useful (an article written around ten years ago explains this process on flatbed scanners), to our knowledge creating custom film ICC profiles for professional cultural heritage imaging isn’t currently a widespread practice. This is likely in part due to the difficulty of sourcing these calibration targets, but based on our initial results, our decision to move in this direction is well worth the trouble.

alt Film imaged using a Kodachrome profile on left, film imaged using the LED DT Photon profile on the right. Note the difference in tone, particularly noticeable in the water. Photograph by Otis Imboden.

alt Film imaged using a Kodachrome profile on left, film imaged using the LED DT Photon profile on the right. The landscape at the bottom of the frame is now visible in the image on the left. Photograph by Otis Imboden.

alt Film imaged using an Ektachrome profile on left, film imaged using the LED DT Photon profile on the right. Note the finer detail in the shadows in the image on the left. Photograph by Otis Imboden.

With help from our colleague Spencer from Digital Transitions, we created ICC profiles using 35mm Kodachrome and Ektachrome IT-8 targets, which reproduce the color palette of these respective films. We then digitized a handful of test Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides using each of these new profiles and compared them to images created using the standard DT cultural heritage ICC profile. The results were pretty profound, and very exciting to see. For both Kodachrome and Ektachrome film, the digital surrogates created using the custom profiles had a much more subtle, elegant color gradient, and captured a finer level of detail in the darker parts of the film. The ability to extract more information while maintaining color accuracy alone is extremely valuable for cultural heritage imaging, and we look forward to running further tests and evaluations with our colleagues at DT as we put these profiles into production.

We owe a huge thanks to our friends over at the Library of Congress for helping us get started on the journey to transmissive color management, and Spencer Zidarich, Technical Specialist at DT, for his time and expertise in helping us refine our techniques and workflows.

Further reading: Color Management Guide by Arnaud Frich

Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials

Hello!Thank you for your interesting article! Could you, please, share a picture of three targets in greater resolution? A raw file will be just awesome!
Hi Alexei, so glad to see you enjoyed the article! Unfortunately I can't upload raw files to this platform. Please feel free to contact me atjmcvey@ngs.orgso we can further discuss the targets we used and how raw files might be of use to you.

“Improper storage environments, poor quality housing materials, and inappropriate handling practices are among the major factors that contribute to the deterioration of photographs.” –Peter Mustardo and Nora Kennedy

The Digital Preservation Archive team is still hard at work digitizing and preserving National Geographic’s collection of photographic materials. So what better time than the American Library Association’s Preservation Week for us to highlight the important process of rehousing as part of a long-term preservation plan?

As we mentioned in our To the Moon and Back Open Explorer series, when considering initial collections to digitize, the many upcoming 50th anniversaries of the Apollo mission series and National Geographic's documentation of the space race factored heavily into our decision to make these materials a priority. However, while other collections such as the Stratosphere Project were already stored in proper archival housing (or, in the case of negatives exhibiting vinegar syndrome, kept in cold storage), the Space Collection materials were stored in plastic bins that likely dated to their original use by NGM editors in the 1960s and 70s. This was a major red flag!

While storing archival materials in plastic containers might not be terrible in and of itself, there was no marking on the boxes to indicate what type of plastic the boxes were made of, and thus no way of knowing if the plastic could cause an adverse chemical reaction. There is also evidence that plastic enclosures will restrict airflow more than cellulose enclosures, thus causing higher relative humidity within the boxes and risking mold growth or physical changes to the photographic materials. Some prints and film materials showed fairly significant degradation, likely due in part to storage conditions. Cracks were also evident in several of the boxes, so there was really no other option than to rehouse the photographic collection in new acid-free photo boxes.

In addition to being stored in less than ideal housing, there were inconsistencies in the protection provided to materials in the plastic boxes. Some materials, such as 4x5 sheet film, had been stored in paper envelopes, although there was no indication that the envelopes were acid-free. Other materials, including photographic prints, could be found loose in boxes, with 35mm slides often loose or bundled with rubber bands. We set about making sure that all physical objects within the boxes would have some form of protection – 8x10 prints in folders and stored flat, 35mm slides in protective sleeves and stored in properly-sized boxes, and sheet film in acid-free and buffered envelopes. Any new supplies that we order for rehousing have passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT), a standard developed by the Image Permanence Institute for evaluating enclosures for photographic materials.

Taking the time to perform a thorough rehousing process for the space collection has also allowed us to concurrently complete item-level inventories and organize the photographic materials in order to make it easier for imaging the photos as part of our digitization workflow. Digitization does not equal preservation, but it does mean that physical materials will not need to be handled as frequently. Combined with proper housing and well-maintained environmental conditions, we can extend the life of Nat Geo’s historic collections, in addition to making our collections more accessible.

Sources consulted:

Mustardo, Peter, and Nora Kennedy. "Photograph Preservation: Basic Methods of Safeguarding Your Collections." MARAC Technical Leaflet Series 9 (1994): 1-39.

Shrieve, Annabelle, Vauna Gross, Jeff Hunt, Tomomi Nakashima, and Randy Silverman. "Boxing the 'Big Huge': A Preventive Conservation Conundrum." Archival Product News 17, no. 4 (2012): 1-8.

Photos L to R: The former home for the Apollo series photographs ; Moving sheet film and 70mm slides to new boxes

image-1 image-1

“The fact is those two were brilliant. I don’t know how they knew so much about the chemistry of dyes—it’s immensely complicated. It’s like going home on Friday and saying your weekend hobby is doing nuclear fission.” —Luis Marden on Godowsky and Mannes, the inventors of Kodachrome film

Happy National Preservation Week from the Nat Geo Archives! To celebrate, we are continuing our color photography journey and discussing one of National Geographic magazine’s most prolific mediums, Kodachrome color film. In my last post, I mentioned briefly that glass plate color photography lasted only a few decades before it was eclipsed by small-format color film, which NGM photographers enthusiastically adopted in the late 1930s. However, such a technological shift may not have happened at the established and stalwart Geographic without one young upstart.

Marden’s Toy Camera

Luis Marden retired in the 1970s as a National Geographic legend, one of the Society’s most prolific and innovative photographers. But before he became the Geographic’s “Renaissance Man,” Marden first came to NGS in 1934 as a 20-year-old self-taught journalist and photographer with an interest in small format filmcolor, which was regarded as little more than a novelty by professional photographers at the time. Marden reminisced that in his job interview with NGM Chief of Illustrations Franklin Fisher, he was told of his Leica camera that the Geographic didn’t “have time for those toys.” Indeed, at the time magazines like the NGM used large-format equipment that produced easily printable and engravable images; filmcolor may have been convenient, but there was no way it could be reproduced in the same manner as the glass plate Autochromes or Finlays.

Marden began his career at National Geographic as a developer, learning in intimate detail the technical processes of laboratory photography. As Marden himself said, “it wasn’t like cake mix, where you simply add water; you took the basic chemicals and mixed them up.” While Marden was learning the ropes in Washington, two musicians and amateur chemists, Leopold Godowsky and Leopold Mannes, were perfecting their years of chemical experimentation to create a subtractive color process that resulted in nearly continuous-toned color images. Their invention, eventually picked up by Eastman Kodak, became known as Kodachrome. Marden first encountered 16mm Kodachrome motion-picture film in 1935 and immediately saw the possibility to turn his “toy camera” into a professional opportunity. Nearly a year later, in 1936, 35mm still film Kodachrome was nearly ready for the market. Marden, ever eager for experimentation, convinced the Eastman lab to send a few rolls for him to try before its official release.

alt This color print is one of Luis Marden’s first Kodachrome photographs.

Marden spent a weekend testing the new film with a variety of photographs, including one taken on horseback while riding in Rock Creek Park with his future wife, and showed his findings to the top brass. Though he initially met with a bit of a chilly reception, Marden’s bold gambit eventually resulted in major change.

Proof of Concept

The Kodachrome breakthrough truly began in 1937, with two major developments: established NGM photographer Bob Moore took Kodachrome into the field in Austria and the producers of National Geographic’s color prints, Beck Engraving Company, revealed their own promising results with Kodachrome film. These two events combined lit the fire of “the Kodachrome Revolution” at the National Geographic Society, essentially paving the way for decades of spectacular color photography that made National Geographic magazine a renowned leader in photojournalism.

Photographer Bob Moore, on assignment in Europe, received five rolls of Kodachrome film with instructions to “snap some sample shots” when he had the opportunity. While in Austria, Moore captured several arresting images of folk dancers whirling and twirling about, a feat that would have been impossible with the much slower shutter speeds and heavy equipment of larger-format cameras. It is difficult to overstate just how thoroughly the ability to use a small, portable camera to shoot color revolutionized field photography for National Geographic. While in earlier decades Luis Marden joked that the first words a photographer learned in a foreign language were “hold still,” photographers could now capture their subjects in vibrant color, engaged in natural movement. Other NGM photographers also experimented with Kodachrome in 1936 and 1937, but Bob Moore’s shots of Austrian dancers would become the first Kodachromes published, appearing in the April 1938 issue.

alt Photographer: Robert Moore, National Geographic Society

Indeed, photography was only half of the equation; to truly utilize 35mm Kodachrome film, the Geographic had to figure out if it was printable. Bud Wisherd, chief of the photography lab, sent two rolls of Kodachrome to Beck Engraving in Philadelphia in 1936 so that they might experiment with the new color process. In 1937, Charles Beck wrote to magazine editor Gilbert Grosvenor that he believed 35mm Kodachrome may be even more effective for print production than the cumbersome glass plate processes. The Beck Engraving Company’s methods were crucial to National Geographic’s ability to readily and consistently print color images. For many publications, even celebrated photojournalism giants such as Life magazine, engraving and printing color remained a challenge until the 1960s.

Preserving Kodachrome Color

Similar to our collection of glass-plate color mosaic processes, Kodachromes present their own unique preservation needs. One major and pressing difference is volume—while we have quite a large autochrome collection (some 12,000), the sheer amount of Kodachrome in the Nat Geo photo archive is staggering. At the last official estimate, we have approximately nine million 35mm color slides in the photo archive, roughly 4-5 million of which are likely Kodachrome. Luckily for us, one of the advantages to Kodachrome is its relative stability in dark storage; if Kodachrome is stored correctly, the colors remain vibrant and lush.

alt Photographer: Otis Imboden, National Geographic Society

Properly capturing the Kodachrome color palette presents another challenge, in that the dyes that make up the unique color of Kodachrome look and behave differently than the dyes in other types of film, such as Ektachrome or Fujicolor. Without getting too deep into the weeds of digitization and color management, best practice is to use a color target produced using Kodachrome dyes to calibrate our camera to capture Kodachrome’s brilliant colors as accurately as possible. This sounds simple, right? The problem is that when Kodak stopped producing Kodachrome in 2009, labs stopped making and stocking the chemicals to process the film, meaning that there is now a very limited supply of these once-common targets. Luckily, the digital preservation team was able to track down one of these targets with some help from our friends over at the Library of Congress, so we are on our way to implementing a best practices workflow for our Kodachrome film.

As always, we’ll keep you posted here on our journey through the archives as we discover the many wonders it holds!

For more information about the sources for this article, please contact the Library and Archives.

As we continue our long-term digitization project for the NG Library & Archives collections, one of our current focuses has been on performing inventories of the textual collection of the 1934-35 Stratosphere flights. Sometimes we find documents that might only be tangentially related to the Stratosphere project, but that are nonetheless of great historical interest. And we just so happened to stumble upon one of these right before International Women’s Day!

Below you can see a flyer for the Women’s National Air Meet, which took place in Dayton, Ohio on August 4th and 5th, 1934, and was one of the earliest all-female flying competitions (Captain Albert W. Stevens, pilot on the Stratophere flight, was based at Wright Field in Dayton – our best guess for how this advertisement ended up in these files). Early women aviators had already competed against men in several competitions, but pilot Florence Klingensmith’s fatal crash in the 1933 Frank Phillips Trophy Race was given as a pretext for disallowing women to compete against men. Thus competitions such as the Women’s National Air Meet were introduced, which gave women the opportunity to show that they could fly with just as much speed and skill as men.

Events included landing contests, parachute jumping contests, and free-for-all handicap races on both days of the competition. Research indicates that Helen Richey, a pioneering female pilot who was the first woman hired as a commercial airline pilot, took home the prize for the premier race in the competition.

Working with the Stratosphere documents and photographic materials has given us a great sense of the preparations, scientific calculations, and bravery that went into the early days of flying. It is easy to see how these pilots were an inspiration to many people during the time of the Great Depression. This flyer serves as a reminder that female pilots were some of the most influential role models at this time, and contributed some truly amazing feats in the early days of flight.


The World in Living Color

A bit of National Geographic trivia: the first natural color image to appear in National Geographic Magazine was printed in the July 1914 issue. The photo was of a flower garden in the Belgian city of Ghent, and the last sentence of the caption reads, “The picture makes one wonder which the more to admire--the beauty of the flowers or the power of the camera to interpret the luxuriant colors so faithfully.”

Long before color photography became commonplace and easy for the average photographer to shoot, NGM editor (and later Society president) Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor determined that Nat Geo should do its best to show members the world as it existed--in living color. He accomplished this by investing considerable time and money into hiring photographers who made Lumière Autochromes, a color photography process that employed dyed potato starch grains first patented in 1903. The National Geographic photo archive holds approximately 12,000 autochromes, as well as a substantial number of other early additive color processes, with around 13,000 total plates. It is, to our knowledge, one of the largest collections of its kind, and contains scenes from across the globe captured from the 1910s to the 1930s. In a 1928 letter, Grosvenor wrote, “Even if these photographs are not used in the Magazine or other publications of The Society, they will have great historical value in future years…”

Grosvenor had no idea how right he would be; ninety years later, we’re now in the process of figuring out how to digitize and share our Autochrome Collection with the world.

Innovations in Color Photography

Though the Lumière brothers in France began manufacturing the first truly commercially viable color photographic process with the Autochrome in 1907, other competitors followed closely behind in the early twentieth century. Other color processes employed by National Geographic and their contractors included Dufaycolor, invented in 1909 using a pattern of green lines that crossed violet and orange to form a crosshatch, and Finlaycolor, an English competitor launched in 1908 that employed a grid of red, green, and violet lines. Most similar to the Autochrome was the Agfacolor process. Patented in 1908 by a Danish scientist and first manufactured in 1916, Agfacolor used a randomly patterned screen of violet, green, and orange dyes. Each process produced a screen pattern visible at the microscopic level, which result in identifiably distinctive color images.

alt Agfacolor process (Photographer: Gervais Courtellemont)

alt Lumière Autochrome process (Photographer: Orren Louden)

alt Dufaycolor process (Photographer: Robert Moore)

alt Finlay process (Photographers: Clifton Adams and Edwin Wisherd)

These various color processes were prized for different reasons; while the Lumière Autochrome offered the preferred smoothness and naturalistic look, Finlays required substantially less exposure time and could be captured in much more diverse settings. For example, in 1930 Melville Bell Grosvenor took what we believe to be the first aerial color photographs using the Finlay process. Throughout the 1930s, Nat Geo photographers used all of the aforementioned color processes in different circumstances depending on the nature of the assignment and environmental conditions. However, by 1938 the small-format Kodachrome color film from Eastman Kodak had revolutionized color photography in the field for National Geographic. The amount of mosaic color processes published in the magazine dropped precipitously by 1939, replaced largely by Kodachrome and Ektachrome color film. By the early 1940s, the era of arduous glass-plate photography at Nat Geo was at its end, thanks to the pioneering efforts of National Geographic photographers such as Luis Marden, as well as the Beck Engraving Company, whose innovative work made it possible to print color images from small-format film.

In the end, the early color processes that employed fragile glass plates and sensitive chemicals only lasted for a few decades as the commercially-viable answer to color photography before new and improved film processes took hold. While Kodachrome opened up amazing possibilities for the intrepid Nat Geo photographers in the field, our collection of early color processes remains a treasure trove of beautiful and historically invaluable photographs taken during a period of rapid change throughout the world.

The Digital Revolution

Much like color photography in the early twentieth century, the pace of progress in the world of digital cultural heritage means rapid improvement in our ability to capture digital surrogates of our various analog materials. Our current setup employs a 100MP digital camera on a modular copy stand, which we can use to capture both reflective (photographic prints, documents, etc.) and transmissive (glass plate transparencies, film negatives, etc.) materials of various sizes. The technological advances made in the last 5-10 years allow us to capture at an unprecedented quality, and, as appropriate, to digitally restore objects that have deteriorated throughout the decades.

As we prepare to digitize the many and varied objects in our collections, we need to do a substantial amount of prep work, which includes researching the best method to use depending on the materials. For example, the only substantial research we found on the digitization of autochromes recommended lighting the object using a collimated light source rather than a diffuse light source (which we typically use for transmissive materials). To help us look into this a bit further, our friends at DT Cultural Heritage in New York hunted up a collimated light and came down to Washington for some hands-on experimentation. To decide whether or not to pursue using a collimated light, we compared digitized images of the plates using both the collimated light and the diffuse light. During this process, we also made some interesting discoveries regarding how different types of illumination can help us record condition and conservation concerns for the original object.

Though we still have some research to do and a lot of decisions to make regarding the best way to digitize these phenomenal images, we got some shots that capture the beautiful detail of these early color photography processes, and a good idea of the many factors we need to consider as we move forward. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and we want to be sure whatever digitization specifications we choose will appropriately convey not only the beauty of the images as a whole, but also the subtleties and imperfections of these fascinating processes.

Though we’re at the very beginning of this journey, we hope to share some updates on our progress soon. We’re all very excited to start work with these images, as well as the background research on the photographers and their journeys. See below for a few full-frame examples of the photographs in this collection, and stay tuned to learn the stories behind them.

Many thanks to Doug Peterson, Head of R&D at DT Cultural Heritage, and Wayne Cozzolino, our DT sales rep and equipment guru, for spending their time and expertise to help us with this project! If you're interested in the technical details, you can read Doug's analysis over on the DT Cultural Heritage blog.

Further reading:

The Lumière Autochrome: History, Technology, and Preservation by Bertrand Lavédrine and Jean-Paul Gandolfo, with the collaboration of Christine Caperdou and Ronan Guinée; 2013.(

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Thanks for this Julie -- A great tribute to the once and future world of the autochrome .

The team here at National Geographic has been working hard to continue with our mission to catalogue and digitize some of the most significant areas of our collection, including the Aquascope, Stratosphere, and Space Collection materials that we wrote about a few months ago. We are also continuing to image at-risk film that has vinegar syndrome, as discussed in the last post, from the Volkmar Wentzel Collection. It occured to me belatedly that we never told the story behind many (though not all) of the materials that exhibit vinegar syndrome; though these objects have deteriorated, we’re lucky to have them at all.

These materials, along with items that are still in relatively good condition, were rescued from weeding by editor Volkmar “Kurt” Wentzel in the 1970s, when the National Geographic photo archive was still used as much more of an “image library” for publication needs, rather than as a valuable historical resource and record of Nat Geo’s work to gather and disseminate geographic knowledge. Wentzel rescued approximately 12,000 photos from being thrown out and adopted them into his own collection, where they lived until the early 2000s. When Wentzel passed away, his wife generously donated the collection back to National Geographic. Unfortunately, lack of climate control for many years triggered the onset of vinegar syndrome in many of these photos, hence our need to keep them in cold storage and digitize as quickly as we can.

Though many of the photos in the collection are by other National Geographic staff members and photographers, we do have quite a few shot by Wentzel himself. Last Friday, we digitized a batch of images from a National Geographic Magazine feature from 1954 titled “Man’s New Servant, the Friendly Atom,” a story that delved into America’s optimistic postwar love affair with atomic energy. Wentzel’s photography of work in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Brookhaven, Long Island’s nuclear power plants evokes both the promise and the incredible fragility of the “still-mysterious energy” that article author F. Barrows Colton described as “an elusive and ghostlike thing.”

Wentzel’s photographs, which illustrate the many uses of atomic energy, evoke in the modern viewer both a sense of nostalgia and a certain nervousness. Nuclear power never quite took off as a major energy solution, in part due to several high-profile nuclear disasters, but in an age where increasingly alarming data on climate change makes our future uncertain, the atom might look a bit friendlier again.

One of the coolest parts about this project is the “behind-the-scenes” nature of digitizing all of the photographs in a batch and wondering about the stories that ultimately didn’t end up published in NGM. Take a look at some of the unpublished images from Wentzel’s tour of U.S. nuclear facilities--what piques your interest?

Learn more about Kurt Wentzel and his remarkable career with National Geographic over at Long Exposure: Our Friend Wentzel's 50 Year Adventure as my colleagues Sara Manco and Melissa Sagen tell his story.

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Our mission to digitize the National Geographic archives is now approximately five months underway, and as we noted in our last post, we have been tackling some pretty exciting projects. From outer space to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, we’ve been working hard to inventory and digitize key moments in National Geographic exploration history. Within this mission, one of our top priorities has become digitizing film that is deteriorating quickly due to vinegar syndrome. We are essentially in a race against time to ensure that these images don’t disappear from our archive altogether!

What is vinegar syndrome? Why is it a problem?

This chemical process specifically affects cellulose acetate film, which was introduced in the early twentieth century to replace nitrate film, a highly flammable and unstable film base. Though this “safety film” was much more stable and safe to use than nitrate, film manufacturers and photographers discovered that acetate film degraded quickly in certain conditions, specifically heat and humidity. By the time this degradation was reported and studied extensively, acetate film was in widespread use across the world.

Vinegar syndrome is the common term for the chemical breakdown that occurs when acetate film bases start to decompose, named for the vinegary smell that accompanies the release of acetic acid. The deterioration causes the plastic film base to become brittle and misshapen, thereby causing the base to separate from the gelatin emulsion (which forms the actual photographic image itself). Once it has started, this chemical reaction will continue, with visible decay increasing drastically once the decomposition reaches a certain point. Though keeping film in cold storage can slow the process of decomposition, acetate film with vinegar syndrome will eventually become unusable and the photographic image will be lost.

Yikes! That sounds pretty bad. How many photographs are at risk?

Our Senior Photo Archivist, Sara Manco, has taken steps to delay the spread and progress of vinegar syndrome in our materials by placing the film that is showing symptoms into cold storage. She has also taken the precaution of quarantining the materials with the most advanced decay by placing them in separate boxes that are wrapped in archival lining and sealed in plastic bags. Overall, there are approximately 3,000-3,500 pieces of film in a state of advancing decay. We are prioritizing these materials for digitization by implementing “Fish and Chips Fridays” (get it?) in the imaging lab.

So what’s the method for digitizing these materials?

In order to keep the deteriorating film quarantined and safely away from other objects that could catch this syndrome, we made the decision to dedicate Fridays to this particular digitization workflow. We chose Fridays so that we could be sure to thoroughly clean our equipment and any surfaces in the lab that came into contact with vinegar syndrome film, and to air out the space over the weekend. As you may guess, it can be quite unpleasant to spend long periods of time in a small room filled with smelly film! In addition to causing harm to other objects, vinegar syndrome can also cause skin and mucous-membrane irritation, so it’s important to limit the amount of time our team spends interacting with the materials. At the end of the day, the safety of our staff is just as important as the safety of the objects we are trying to preserve.

On a typical Fish and Chips Friday, our Project Manager, Julie, retrieves a box of film from cold storage for a quick collation and inventory while the Digitization Specialist, Kendall, sets up the camera equipment. While we would typically acclimate these materials to room temperature over time, the objects we are currently digitizing are so sufficiently degraded that we have made the judgement call that there is no real advantage to acclimation to prevent further degradation. Once the materials are collated and recorded in our scanning log, we are ready to begin digitization.

Because we are working with degraded materials, it is important to balance speed, careful object handling, condition reporting as necessary, and precise imaging procedure. To ensure that we are able to meet all of these goals, we work in a two-person team to stage materials, digitize, and rehouse. Using this two-person team, we can usually get through approximately 150-200 objects in the space of two to three hours. Once we finish up for the day, Kendall performs a quick quality assurance check to make sure nothing is out of focus or otherwise in need of rescanning. When everything looks good, the objects are whisked back to cold storage and we begin post-processing.

What comes after digitization?

Because the majority of the vinegar syndrome objects are negatives, we have to do some extra processing work--aside from the usual cropping, straightening, and export--to produce a faithful content reproduction of the image. Processing these images out and ensuring that the appropriate metadata is connected to the image file usually takes even more time than actually digitizing the objects (which is true for all of our projects!). However, at the end of the process we are able to store both a faithful object reproduction of the film itself as well as a content reproduction of the photographic image for future researchers to use. Using appropriate editing tools, we will even be able to digitally remove some of the damage from vinegar syndrome deterioration for a digital “restoration” of the artist’s intended rendering if necessary.

Though we can’t turn back time on the damage to these objects, we can make sure that the digital reproduction is available even after the physical object is unusable. The collection includes images from all around the world taken by National Geographic photographers depicting a wide range of subjects, from daily life in Kuala Lumpur to rural landscapes in British Columbia. In addition to beautiful imagery, they are documents of a world that, in many places, no longer exists. Understanding and accessing this past is an important part of National Geographic’s mission to further geographic knowledge and global awareness, and the Digital Preservation Archive team is excited to engage in this important work.

Further reading on Vinegar Syndrome:

Vinegar Syndrome, National Film Preservation Foundation:

Acetate Film Base Deterioration - The Vinegar Syndrome, Image Permanence Institute:

Vinegar Syndrome, AIC Wiki:

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In celebration of World Digital Preservation Day, we wanted to provide an update on our progress so far with the Digital Preservation Archive, as well as showcase some of the other historic National Geographic expeditions that our Library + Archives team has posted about on Open Explorer:

  • Our first big undertaking for digitization has been the photographic collection for the National Geographic Society-U.S. Army Air Corps Stratosphere Flights. We’ve completed scanning and cleaned up metadata for B&W prints that have been stored in photo albums, and the next step will be to perform quality control before sending the scans to cloud storage. Negatives and textual documents are next on-deck to be digitized.

  • The Apollo program continues to be our focus for digitizing our materials related to space exploration. Inventories have been completed for Apollo missions 4 through 17, and are continuing for supporting materials such as astronaut training and the Lunar Orbiter program. Unpublished photographic materials for Apollo 4 through Apollo 7 have been scanned, and Apollo 8 is in progress – look out for an update on our To the Moon and Back expedition in anticipation of Apollo 8’s 50th anniversary later in December!

  • We’ve also been working on inventorying our collection of Aquascope materials, both photographic and textual. It’s a relatively small collection, but many of the unpublished 35mm slides were not kept in any particular order (disrespect des fonds?), which has made organization a bit tricky. When we’ve completed the Aquascope materials, we’ll have a wonderful collection of high-quality scans featuring underwater photography from Chesapeake Bay.

  • Fish and Chips Fridays is our dedicated time for digitizing high-priority materials that are suffering from vinegar syndrome. Stay tuned for an upcoming behind-the-scenes post about this important work.

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Our expedition really begins with the unveiling of our brand new Phase One iXG 100MP camera! As with any digitization project, we need to be able to produce high-quality digital images of our physical materials, so this camera is a key part of the DPA project. In addition to all of the NG staff that helped to acquire and set up our new equipment, we've also received lots of training and assistance from Wayne Cozzolino and Spencer Zidarich of Digital Transitions.

This video shows us getting the camera operational and a glimpse of the Capture One software we're using to process our image files. We'll be sharing more posts from behind the scenes as we continue with our digitization project.

Filming and editing credit: Steve Pickard

People across the globe are eagerly waiting to discover more treasures from the NG's archives :-) Back in December 2017, only about 20 percent of the photography archive had been digitized ( Wishing you all the best in this exciting endeavor!

Expedition Background

The Digital Preservation Archive (DPA) project will be an exploration
of how we can achieve the goal of maintaining the National Geographic Society's institutional knowledge and sharing it with the world. Our aim is to develop a workflow that efficiently adapts legacy archival collections to preservation-quality digital surrogates in a consistent manner. This will aid in the preservation of physical materials by limiting the need to remove these materials from storage, increase discoverability of archival materials through the capture of robust metadata, and allow for access by people across the globe for educational and research purposes.

Although we are not venturing outside the walls of National Geographic HQ, we still consider this to be very much an expedition. Much planning and funding has gone into making the DPA a possibility, and we are stepping into the unknown somewhat by taking on a digitization project of this magnitude. We’ll be documenting our progress, celebrating our accomplishments, and not hiding our missteps -- this is a learning experience for all of us! We look forward to having you join us on our journey.


Conal -- great launch of our project! We have incredible stories hidden in our collections and we are excited to reveal them over the course of our work and share them with the world.

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