Around and Around: 720,000 images on 130 reels – digitized + delivered

Long-time LUNA software client, the New York City Municipal Archive (NYCMA) embarked on a project with Luna’s Imaging Services team to digitize 720k nitrate negatives from 35mm still camera film spliced together onto 1000-foot reels.

A sullen looking dark haired teenage boy stands rigidly on a street corner, wearing a prep-school uniform, with metal roller skates strapped over his shiny black dress shoes.  He’s gripping a street hockey stick the way a soldier holds a rifle, and watches the strange men set up their cameras and placards.

Oblivious to the rampant weeds and the unpainted fence surrounding her parent’s clapboard wooden house, a schoolgirl in a flowery cotton dress joyously strikes the graceful pose of a ballerina for her new audience.  The photographers methodically do their work, take the shot unbothered, and move on to the next house on the untidy street. No time even for a little applause.

Luna’s Production Supervisor, Joe Raemer, at work operating the reel-to-reel capture station.

Luna’s Production Supervisor, Joe Raemer, at work operating the reel-to-reel capture station.

The unexpected sunshine casts a long afternoon shadow from a stylishly dressed young woman, returning to her home neighborhood after a hard day of work in the city. She is helping her elderly mother, burdened with a thick coat and a bulging canvas bag, negotiate a tall curb as they cross a busy street.  They slowly, and perhaps painfully, walk home after some late shopping, whispering their concerns to each other. The surveyors’ camera unintentionally captures the moment, and freezes their lives for all time.

A tall NYPD police officer stands in front of the plate glass window of a small grocery store, hands on hips just above a sagging pistol belt, suspiciously eying these invaders with the cameras.  His black uniform is slightly disheveled, his officer’s cap tilted downward hiding his eyes, and he has the menacing slouch of a veteran. His whole appearance emphatically commands that  there will be no trouble today on his watch; not on his street. Standing to his left in the frame of the shop’s door is the short mustachioed store owner, sporting a very stained apron. He looks frightened; but by the photographers, or the cop, we can not be sure.

The best photographs don’t tell the whole story, but instead provide hints that kick start the imagination and encourage it to build its own story.  For the casual viewer of the New York City Municipal Archive photo collection there are thousands of such hints that do exactly that. The original targets of the project, the taxable buildings and properties of the five boroughs of New York City, are interesting themselves, but it’s the images of the people who have accidentally stumbled into the camera’s frame that are the truly fascinating gems.  The clothing, the hair styles, the faces… this is is the real 1940’s. It’s the undiluted human honesty of the unplanned. As one looks at these moments in time, these imperfect souls from a different era, accidentally caught on the periphery by the camera’s lens, the imagination can not help but weave life stories around these involuntary time travellers.

While the nitrate film was in relatively stable condition, the project stipulated that the digitization occur within a 6-month window for an weekly production goal of 30,000 captures.  The production process also included automated metadata capture, with transcription and custom filenaming, from the photographers placards contained within each frame providing the block and building identifier for each building in the 5 boroughs of NYC in the early-1940s.

The film was received in February 2018 and with the help of Luna’s project specific custom built reel to reel film carrier with an automated take-up system and a couple of weeks of proof-of-concept testing for both the equipment and the metadata extraction, tracking, and filenaming, the imaging team at Luna was running full-swing and meeting the goals that enabled all of the captures to occur within the stipulated time-frame and all of the captures were completed by August.

With the captures complete, post-processing activities continued and completed batches were sent on 4TB drives to the team at NYCMA for QC and upload to the LUNA software.  Thanks to the newly uploaded files, he NYCMA online collection has reached a new milestone and now exceeds a total of 1.5 million assets in multiple LUNA collections all available to the public.  Read Kelli O’Toole’s NYCMA blog post to learn more about the many stages of the project and visit the online collection.