35 millimeters of Information

12Dec11

Originally posted 12-13-2010 at www.hmml.org

Part of my job at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library is “picking winners.” That is, selecting appropriate technologies to move HMML’s imaging and archiving efforts forward into the future without running into technical dead ends or investing in soon-to-be-obsolete technology. In this digital age, we all can recognize the technological winners of the moment (flash drives, optical disks) and contrast them with the systems that ended up in the dustbin of recent history (Anyone still using SyQuest Cartridges?).

This got me to thinking about the tech “winners” of the past, and of a medium that stands out in the last century as a particular success for the storage and presentation of visual imagery and archival data: 35 millimeter film.

Mention “35mm” and the usual image that comes to mind is a sophisticated camera for taking still photographs, perhaps a fancy Nikon reflex with a collection of fine lenses and accessories. The roots of 35mm, however, go back much earlier.

The 35mm film standard can be traced back to Thomas Edison, the famous American inventor and industrialist. He and his associate W. K. Dickson, a photographer, started using perforated film stock 35mm in width during the development of their Kinetoscope, an early motion picture viewing technology. Edison failed to protect the format from being copied by overseas film pioneers, with the result that by 1909, the standard 35mm, four-perforation motion picture frame had become a worldwide standard. The standardization of the film stock, cameras and projection equipment that followed was a huge boon for the nascent movie industry.

Not long after 35mm became the standard film gauge for motion picture gear, inventors became intrigued with the idea of using the film stock in still picture cameras. The most notable example of this is the famous Leica camera, which debuted in 1925 and set the standard for decades in the realm of high-quality “system” cameras offering a myriad of lenses and accessories. The small size and rapid operation of these types of cameras changed the look of news photography.

During this period, other inventors were experimenting with the idea of using film and optics to record the contents of documents and newspapers in such as way as to reduce the optical size of the original to a tremendous degree. This was beginning of the concept of microfilm, a medium that has enjoyed over seven decades of successful use. At HMML alone, over 93,000 reels of 35mm black-and-white microfilm form the core of our manuscript image collection.

Not long afterwards came 35mm color slides, a breakthrough in color photography. No more special glass plates with filter stripes laminated to them or huge “three-color” cameras that exposed three exposures at once through red, green and blue filters. Any 35mm camera could be loaded with this marvelous new film. Slides weren’t just for boring your visitors with projected shows of one’s vacation snapshots—they were powerful teaching tools. Until about 15 years ago, classrooms were routinely equipped with a slide projector—the subject matter could range from famous paintings to photomicrographs of tissue samples. A cousin of this technology was the filmstrip, which people of a certain age will certainly remember. Perhaps you were the kid running the projector, waiting for the audio recording to “beep,” so you could advance to the next frame.

All in all, 35m film has been the “container” for an ocean of visual information comprising the culture, data and historic record of the 20th century. How many miles of 35mm film have been created by Hollywood? How many documents and newspapers have been recorded onto rolls of 35mm microfilm? What would our visual understanding of the latter half of the 20th century be without the fast-shooting photojournalistic style made possible by 35mm equipment?

Now, digital imaging methods have largely supplanted 35mm. A colleague of mine recently returned from a trip. Her digital camera had malfunctioned, so she purchased a couple of disposable 35mm film cameras. Now she was looking for a place to get the film processed and finding out that many of the usual vendors have stopped providing the service. The equipment for working with and viewing 35mm microfilm is becoming uncommon and ridiculously expensive. HMML switched from microfilm to digital photography in 2003 and is very pleased with the enhanced imaging results obtainable with this new technology.

Technology moves on, and one must move forward with it. In planning for the future, though, it’s good to learn from the best of the past, and as far as picking winners, one can only hope to choose technologies with the versatility and longevity of 35mm film.

In my next column, I’ll explain in detail the moment I knew digital photography would replace traditional film, and how this had a profound impact for HMML’s work.

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