Getting Organized Before a Time of Digital Photo Management

Filing images the old way. Photo by Paul Benoit

Filing images the old way.

Back in the day when I was a whippersnapper of a photographer and was shooting film, I learned it was important to save my work. Plenty of people tried to help me be organized, and it’s only appropriate that I now pass it on by helping others save their work in my role at MerlinOne.

There have been plenty of stories of photographers going back through their film to find otherwise meaningless photos that later became important because of circumstance. Dirck Halstead’s photo of President Clinton embracing Monica Lewinsky comes to mind. A forgotten photo of an unknown person in a routine presidential rope line becomes significant because of… well, we all know why. Another less known instance was The Spokesman-Review’s (Spokane, WA) uncovering of photos of white supremacist Buford Furrow after he attacked a community center in Los Angeles. According to Larry Reisnouer, who ran their photo department at the time, they had to go across the street to where film had been relocated for long term storage to find the photos.

As a student photographer in 1976 at The Daily Texan, at The University of Texas, we learned a simple filing system for negatives: you cut your film into strips of 6 frames, put them in an envelope, and wrote an index card with the assignment information. Both the negative and the index card were labeled with the same chronologically ordered number, called a “twin check”. The negatives were filed in numeric order; the index cards were filed alphabetically by subject. This provided two ways to search… chronologically through the negatives and alphabetically in the card catalog. Finding the information that went with the negatives, or the negatives that matched the card became a simple matter of cross-referencing. For us photographers it felt like a lot of extra work – even if it did pay off when it was time to look for a picture!

Later, when I worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1977, filing could not have been easier. At the end of any assignment, all a photographer had to do was staple the rolls of film to a copy of the assignment request form and drop it in a basket. A librarian would take care of the rest (properly filing the negatives, usually with a tearsheet of the photograph). This just transferred work from the photographers to the librarians. If photographers were the weak link, I was one of the worst offenders: it was not unusual for me to leave film draped over a hook near my enlarger or worse, hanging on a coat hook in my locker. On a regular basis, Dorothy Hooper, the photo librarian, would sweep into the photo lab to “encourage” the scofflaws to get caught up on their negative filing.

If there were other ways to throw a wrench in the librarian’s workflow, photographers always managed to find them. We thought we could impress the editors by printing our photos on 11×14 paper instead of the 8×10 we typically used. While it may have impressed editors, it did not impress Dorothy: the filing cabinets she had could not handle the 11×14 size, so our works of art were folded in half for storage.

At The Associated Press in Dallas, we were to send ONLY the strip that contained the transmitted image to the central AP photo library in New York. Local bureaus could keep the remaining negatives if they wanted to but when I was transferred to Austin (1986), the bureau was in the State Capitol building right off the rotunda, about 50 feet from the Governor’s Office. Not much room for storage there – and you can bet we didn’t keep many negatives! My outtakes ended up in yellow Kodak paper boxes. I could usually find an older assignment because of the date ranges contained within the boxes.

Filing images using a digital asset management system. Photo by David Breslauer

Filing images using a digital asset management system.

With the transition to digital, we had to find ways to manage our digital files. Important searchable information, “metadata”, is generated as part of the assignment request process and is digitally “attached” to the resulting photographs. Other information is added “after the fact” including location, general caption information, as well as the “left to right” of individuals in the picture. A few moments invested up front in the photo-workflow adding this metadata can save lots of time later, and doesn’t require effort from others, like librarians.

Metadata lets powerful server-based systems (like those that I help people with, our MerlinOne digital asset management system) locate the right object from a collection of millions in under a second. That is a long way from having to walk to the storage facility and rummage thru boxes of negatives. Now EVERY photo has useful searchable information associated with it. After all, it’s the workflow – and even Dorothy Hooper would be proud of me!

Posted by David Breslauer
Photo by Paul Benoit

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