Monday, January 13, 2014

The Asa Kinney Rephotographic Digital Archives Project

Welcome to the Asa Kinney Project. This blog will follow the course of my independent study for my Masters in Library and Information Science degree at Simmons College. I will update the blog about the process as the semester continues. This first posting is a general outline of the project and an introduction to who Asa Kinney was.

One Hundred and Ten Years Apart

Mount Holyoke College, Juxtaposed 1904 - 2014  

James Gehrt

Simmons College GSLIS Independent Study Spring 2014

Asa Kinney, cropped from a 1908 photograph.
Courtesy of the MHC Archives and Special Collection 

The Asa kinney project is a digital archival project centered around the photographic work of Mount Holyoke College Botany Professor, Asa Stephen Kinney.This project will consist of four stages and will have two goals. Stage one is the accession of unprocessed images from the Kinney collection. Stage two is the digitization of 20 selected glass plate negatives. These negatives will be either from the unaccessioned work or from the existing collection. The images will be scenic views of the Mount Holyoke Campus. Stage three is the rephotographing the selected original locations. Stage four will be creating an online exhibition of the comparison views using Omeka software. The first goal is to showcase a selection from  Asa Kinney’s collection of campus views and increase the awareness of his important work. The second goal is to establish a model for rephotographic projects through digital archival efforts, that could be used in the classroom or future five college campus collaborations.

In the early 1900’s Mount Holyoke College, Botany Professor, Asa Stephen Kinney, photographed the Mount Holyoke College campus with a 5”x7” glass plate view camera. In 1904 photographic technology was past the experimental stages of early photography, but it still took a lot of skill and experimentation to manage the complex procedures when creating images. The speed, consistency, and clarity of the dry plate, as compare to wet plate collodion negatives, was a technological breakthrough in photography. Kinney used this process to capture the changing Mount Holyoke Landscape of the early 1900’s.

The results from the popular Kodak box camera, with flexible film, from the late 1880’s could not compare to Kinney’s pre-sensitized, 5x7 dry plates. The Kodak had a fixed focus lens and one shutter speed. As a result, technical adjustments to focus, and exposure could not be done. With the Kodak we see the birth of the snapshot image. Kinney was looking for images of the highest quality with the latest technology. Speed and candor was not his objective. Being a scientist, he had an eye for the details in accurate photographic documentation. When working with plate cameras at the time, there was a need for technical skills in camera and darkroom usage. Kinney’s images show a proven dedication to his photographic technical abilities, with consistent exposures and clear sharp images. He had a mastery of the craft from in-camera composition to exposure and print.

Kinney used photography to create scenic promotional booklets and postcards of Mount Holyoke College. He combined the photographic technology with offset print publishing, to create portable handheld vistas of the college. Before there was a Communications Department, Kinney was showcasing the Mount Holyoke Campus to prospective students and donors through the publication of campus view books and postcards. These items could be printed mailed and shared around the world. He also used the lantern slide process to share images to groups of people by lighting up a screen with his scenic views. The photograph no longer needed to be the precious one of a kind item like early Daguerreotypes. It was becoming a medium for the masses.

Now imagine these frozen moments in time, as in one of Kinney’s books, sitting on a shelf in an alumnae’s office. As the years past, buildings burn down, new construction is created, roads are altered, and trees grow and die.  The landscape evolves and changes, or sometimes surprisingly stays the same. A generation or two later, Kinney’s book is found in a dusty box of treasures in an attic and then donated to the Mount Holyoke Archives. One hundred and fourteen years after the book’s original publishing another photographer comes along and takes it off the shelf. The images are researched, described, and the original negatives located. These selected original scenes are found in today’s landscape and then rephotographed. Resulting in an exhibition of juxtaposed images that will tell a story of loss, growth and progress over the span of space and time.

Today anyone can come into the MHC archive, sit down, and enjoy Kinney’s unique original images, if they were known to be there. This project will make his work once again accessible and easy to find. What if we could find a way to broaden these images’ reach once again, with the latest technology, as Kinney did with the technology of his time? This new process would be done in the same spirit of Kinney’s desire to share with the world the views of the Mount Holyoke Campus.  The digital image combined with electronic publishing techniques can act like Kinney’s glass plate negatives and the offset printing press, or the lantern slide projector and screen. Now these 1904 views can, not only be physically sent, but also digitally captured and downloaded to hand-held devices around the world. They can be viewed side by side with the same locations today allowing the user to explore the changing campus.

What would Kinney think? I think he would embrace the new accessibility found with digital technology. He would be amazed at how there would be minor, or no loss, of detail from the original negative to the modern surrogate copy. The ability to zoom in to images and see what was unseen with the naked eye would not have been possible during his time. The offset press drastically reduced the fidelity of Kinney’s original images. Clear, sharp, albumen contact images were excellent in reproducing the fine tonal range and details of Kinney’s images, but they could not be mass-produced for his purposes. Using today’s digitization standards in tonal range and resolution, Kinney’s images can now be seen with clarity and accessibility that he could have never imagined. Overall, I think he would embrace the process and see the power of combining his historic images with today’s digital technology.

Project plan:

Stage 1: Jan 13 - March 1
Accession materials. (approximately 5 hours per week)
      Following MHC guidelines as described by Leslie Fields
      Identify materials
      Sort by format, i.e.: “like with like”
      Describe the categories broadly, including
      subject matter
      circa dates
      Create skeleton records in AT including scope and contents note
      New records need to be created from scratch
      Make recommendations for rehousing of materials

Stage 2: February 15 - March 10
      Curate a collection of 20 original Kinney negatives that showcase the MHC campus during the early 20th century.
      Digitization of selected materials
      Following the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines (FADGI) and the processes of the Digital Assets and Preservation Services at Mount Holyoke College.

Stage 3: March 1 - April 15
      Scouting locations, time of day, and light.
      Post processing

Stage 4: March 1 - April 28
      Create online exhibit using the software Omeka.
      Highlight the changing MHC landscape through re-photography

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