Beautiful Chaos

Rare scrapbooks that document African American life in the United States from 1890-1975 are being preserved with support through a “Save America’s Treasures” (SAT) grant. The project is a collaborative effort with Emory University Preservation Office, Digitization Center, and the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). The SAT grant is awarded through the Department of Interior and the National Park Service, in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).


Some examples of scrapbook pages.

A blurred photograph of a woman on a beach.

An article from a newspaper, half-torn and yellowed.

A crumpled ticket stub from a journey upstate.

An aged, handmade invitation to a social event from
“Lord knows when?”

Things that might have been found inside a trash bin, shoved into a neglected drawer, or discarded on the sidewalk. Things that might have been forgotten.
Until now.

These items are just a few of the lost treasures found in the collection of rare scrapbooks which document a century of African American life. When presented with the project, I was eager to see what would be digitally preserved. I had no idea how varied and unique each scrapbook would be. This factor piqued my interest and posed some important challenges. Not only were we faced with the questions of what equipment to use with these timeless books but how we would consistently shoot such a varied collection of items.

The grant from Save America’s Treasures provided us with the right equipment, in the form of a medium-format digital camera, complete with a digital back. It is capable of shooting images accurately and in a second. This was a significant upgrade from our previous camera, outfitted with a scan-back, slowly producing high resolution images every twenty minutes or so.

We upgraded our imaging software to Capture One which allows for editing parametric images (RAW files), in-depth processing, and metadata creation. We were also able to afford some low-temperature, white-balanced LED studio lights, also a vast improvement over the very warm (both in color and in temperature) Tungsten light bank previously used. Click here for more information on our equipment.

With the equipment questions solved, the next challenge was to actually shoot these scrapbook treasures. As always, our goal is to produce accurate, archival quality images, organizing them in a cohesive and discernible way. What makes this project equally challenging and fascinating is the items themselves, which at first glance appear chaotic and random. What do you do with a collection of scribbled notes, scraps of newsprint stuck between pages of photographs, greeting cards, and glued-in envelopes? To begin, we are very fortunate to have an excellent team of dedicated Preservation wizards literally next door to us. They work diligently on stabilizing, repairing, and preparing these artifacts for scanning or photography. Any questions I have regarding handling or prepping an item for shooting, the Preservation team answers with an unmatched level of expertise. Next is the actual shooting. Without boring everyone with the technical mumbo jumbo, I use a simple mantra throughout the process:
Consistency Is Key

Before I start firing off the shutter, I do an assessment of each item, adjusting the lighting, and camera position accordingly, making sure that the subject is lit properly and framed well, most importantly. I determine what my shooting template will look like, referring to the surface area where all the elements will be captured. Once established, a consistent template is most important; the only thing changing from image to image is the subject itself. In each shot, we include a color chart for accurate color and exposure balancing and a ruler for sizing reference. Just as important as maintaining accurate color and balance is keeping the subject in the same position throughout the photographic process. This makes cropping the image in Capture One much easier. I use magnetic strips as a border to make sure the ruler, color chart, and subject are all in the same position.


A sample of my work surface

Once the template is set-up, and I have balanced the shot for white and color, I take a few test shots of the subject to determine exposure and focal settings. I typically do a five-point inspection of each image to check focal sharpness. Given that these items are incredibly unique and delicate, I check the corners and the center to confirm the image is in focus. We want to capture every minute detail as sharply and accurately as possible, treating each image as if the digital record will be the only way others interact with these books. Years from now, that very well may be the case.

When shooting a scrapbook, I do it as one would read through the book. Each page is shot with every fold-out, envelope, brochure, scrawled-on photograph, scrap of note-paper, map, or drawing exposed and displayed. Every item is captured, because someone went to the trouble of saving these items, these physical fragments of their lives. It is our job to document each one.

Sample page from Cleopatra Love’s scrapbook:

Sample page from Cleopatra Love’s scrapbook:

After a book is photographed, we crop, edit, title, number, and make any final adjustments through non-destructive editing. This means that any changes made to a digital file can always revert back to the original photograph, ensuring protection of those files. We ultimately process the images in various formats for the end users.

Finally, we intend to provide a digital record of these scrapbooks that will stand the test of time. These are images that can be enjoyed long after the physical copy has faded away, a preserved version of each incredible life as told through a collection of things.

Things that had meaning to someone.

Items that tell personal stories.

Stories that I have the privilege and the honor to photograph on a daily basis.



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