At the turn of the 21st Century London based Hulton Picture Collection merged with Archive Film and Photos, New York to create The Getty Images Hulton Archive – an impressive visual resource of over 80 million images contained within 1500 individual collections. Complimented by over 30,000 hours of archival footage and up to the minute coverage from its News, Sport, Entertainment and Motion divisions, as well as creative content, Getty Images now offers unprecedented access to the finest collection of editorial and creative visual content in the world.
The Hulton collections are the direct descendant of the seminal British weekly Picture Post magazine and Archive Photos can trace their roots to Pictorial Parade, one of the oldest continuously operated photo syndication companies in the United States. Together they offer a wealth of original photographic material spanning the birth of photography to present as well as engravings, maps, cartoons, etchings, lithographs, illustrations, and related visual ephemera dating back to the very beginnings of printed media. With a number of acquisitions over the past 25 years, including Redferns, FPG and the Michael Ochs Archive, and together with a diverse range of image partners, such as the Bettmann Archive, Gamma Rapho, Corbis, Sygma, Paris Match, the archive today is generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest collections of photography.
The year 2000 saw the beginning of a massive digitisation process for Archive Photos, streamlining the collections to reflect the cream of American and international content. A year later the website was relaunched as www.hultonarchive.com with a quarter of a million digitised assets, offering clients a unique window into the massive analogue files. Today acquisitions continue, and, in 2003 a migration program began to transfer the digital files from hultonarchive.com to www.gettyimages.com, sitting alongside a contemporary live feed of news, sport, entertainment and first in-class creative images and video, on a fully e-commerce enabled platform.
A significant investment program into the storage of these remarkable and historically important collections has created an Analogue Centre of Excellence. In late 2016, the centre moved the archive from West London to East London, where the collections are now housed in a temperature and humidity–controlled environment where a rolling program is run of museum standard conservation projects to preserve our cultural legacy for future generations.
Facts & Figures:
Getty Images Archive is one of the largest and oldest privately owned photographic archives in the world:
- Over 10 million images online
- Dedicated analogue facilities in London, Paris, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh with access to over 130M analogue images
- 1 million+ new archival images uploaded to www.gettyimages.com in 2020
- Expert teams with over 400 years of collective experience and an average length of service of over 20 years
We spoke to Brian Doherty, the Getty Images Hulton Archive’s production manager. As the UK has been under lockdown for several weeks, we resorted to having a video call, something many of us have become accustomed to since the Covid-19 pandemic started in March 2020.
Tell us about the process of finding and deciding on purchasing the iXG system.
In 2015 we met Eric Joakim the UK sales manager, who showed us the Phase One XF system when it came out. I think it was with either the 50MP or the 80MP IQ back. At the time we were using a mix of desktop “virtual drum” scanners, flatbed scanners, and an older high-end Heidelberg drum scanner. These scanners can still produce excellent results, particularly with certain types of originals, such as large format transparencies and vintage glass plate negatives.
Even though. we have kept pace with many of the other hardware and software components required by our workflows, it took us a while to create the business case and to make the argument that would justify the investment in a camera-based system, but we were very happy that we were able to conclude the decision towards the end of 2019. We were looking for ways to increase our volume scanning capabilities and were also hoping to improve quality and consistency. We took our time and, in the process, learned quite a lot about the technology and the opportunities it offered to the commercial side of our business.
The key argument was the ability to capture a large variety of objects, in greater numbers, more quickly and with much improved image quality, versatility and consistency. We also saw it as an opportunity to invest in our people and allow them to grow and expand their skillset, building upon many years of experience in handling and digitising a diverse range of archive originals.
The evaluation also required a review of our end-to-end digitisation workflow, to see how it was going to affect processes for our editors and search–data teams as part of the end-to-end, capture-to-publication cycle. At some point we decided to rent a complete system, comprising the Phase One iXG camera, AutoColumn copy stand, Film Capture Stage, and a few different film and glass plate holders. This allowed us to do our own, proper evaluation over several weeks to learn and understand the capabilities, and to figure out how best to integrate it into our workflow. The Phase One team and their UK agent, DTEK were very helpful at every stage of the process.
What sort of challenges do you face in your daily work?
A scan batch, for example, may contain 150 B&W 120 negatives but individual frames can be from different shoots, on a range of different film stocks, with quite varied exposure and processing. There are many other handling considerations, including the age and condition of the originals, the type of enclosures used, the need to capture any adjacent caption information, all while carefully following an Editor’s mark-up. Everything is captured and archived as RAW alongside the (adjusted and corrected) processed TIFFs and JPEGs. The JPEGs are normally a derivative of the TIFF.
Ultimately, throughput is regulated by the variation in object types/formats across a range of collections and sources that feed into our digitisation programme, and the need to ensure exposure and tone/colour are accurate for each individual capture. Careful triage of incoming originals is essential to maintaining the flow of imagery across all current edits and projects, with often quite varied outputs required. Being able to use the same system for almost all of these different objects without the need to assign them to a different device or workflow, has been of real benefit in terms of both the handling and the consistency of the results.
Take a project that includes mounted transparencies housed in hanging-files, for example: the ability to create side and base-illuminated ‘contact’ sheets in a single shot very quicky and in relatively high resolution – including any date and caption information that exists on the mounts – makes it possible to share these for remote–editing on the same day and to then get further instructions and scan the selects again as single frames in hi-res. The same contact sheets are also bundled with the session folder on our servers so that our metadata editors can use them to go back and forth and visually ensure that they select the right images and match them to the actual data. This process has proved to be particularly useful for remote working during the Pandemic and is something that we’re likely to continue in future. Because our work serves both commercial and curatorial end usages, the fact that we can save the RAW file alongside an adjusted (but perhaps not fully retouched) 16-bit TIFF gives us extra flexibility in that we can re-process the RAW into a different format or different scale, colour space etc.
2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic:
One stand-out from 2020 was that we were able to increase the number of images captured through our core analogue digitisation programme by 45% against the previous year, despite the constraints of working during the pandemic. Certain collections containing more contemporary editorial material, such as 35mm and 120 transparencies, were assessed as being suitable for us to physically send out to our editors’ homes for remote editing and captioning, subject to conditions. These originals had to go through a few stages of quarantine and acclimatisation on the journeys to and from the controlled environment of the archive and the more variable conditions of someone’s house, so it was quite a logistical challenge. For most other objects that were too delicate and fragile, we were able to make the scans and contacts/captions available for remote viewing and editing, wherever possible.
The introduction of “work from home”, or flexible working, was something that had, in fact, been planned for some time. We receive a significant amount of already-digitised material from our international partners and contributors, and our work to edit, caption and index this content is something that doesn’t necessarily have to be done in the office. We had also made plans to allow some of our own post-capture image processing and retouch work to be undertaken by a team working on a capture/process rota, split between the Archive and home, so to some extent we had already laid the groundwork.
The pandemic came along just a few months after we had the new system delivered, but we did have just enough time to optimise the workflow. Despite our earlier preparations for home working, the actual departure from the Archive occurred very suddenly, with just one day to organise the roundup and delivery of the necessary equipment to people’s homes. It quickly became clear that most of us were not going to be able to return for quite some time, so our thoughts turned to how to re-organise the hands-on, analogue component of our workflow at the archive in as safe a manner as possible, whilst also facilitating all the various digital processes that would now take place remotely. We are based in East London and the decision had been made that the only people allowed in – apart from essential maintenance and monitoring teams – would be those who can either cycle, walk or drive to the Archive. With protocols for sanitisation, distancing, and safe working inside the building established, two of us returned (by bicycle) in early April 2020 to re-start image capture on the iXG and to begin the task of sorting, packing, and shipping work for remote handling. We would usually have around 25 staff on-site each day, so going down to just two was quite a change, but we have at times had a rota that allowed up to five people on site (five bathrooms, five staff!). We are now back to a core of between two or three essential production staff on site until circumstances in London improve, in general.
Our new way of working has required a lot of additional triage and administration, but things have settled down surprisingly quickly into a very efficient, sustainable process. The flow of content out and back between remote Edit and Search Data teams has now become routine, although we’ve had to keep a close eye on our queues as volumes have varied in relation to circumstances and our on-site staffing. We also have colleagues working with severely restricted access at satellite archives in both the US and France, so we have been able to receive physical content for capture from these locations – subject to handling and acclimatisation protocols – and have also been able to pick-up on processing already–digitised sets. In many ways, it seems as if we have become a “hub” since the onset of the Pandemic, with much of the material which needs to be digitized at the highest level being sent to us, where previously it would have been scanned elsewhere to varying standards.
Our older scanners were beginning to show their age, and during the pandemic the turnaround times and costs for repairs have made it a little more difficult to rely on them for critical work, even though they can still produce excellent results. The iXG and auto-column, in combination with Capture One CH, give us a robust workflow not just from a reliability standpoint but also from what we can get from the IIQ files. The factory profiles and presets are very good, and the latitude of the RAW files allows us to make fine adjustments and to push things further. We have days where we may make several hundred captures, and we know we are not compromising anything in terms of image quality, exposure, and sharpness. We do a fair amount of the initial processing work in Capture One, so that we can have the more basic adjustments and corrections saved with the RAW files, and we then use Photoshop to do the more advanced retouching and masked, layered adjustments.
Working remotely – without the physical originals in front of you – can be tricky, in terms of processing and retouching, particularly for B&W negatives, where there is always a degree of interpretation required. However, all our Archive Digitisation Specialists are used to working both capture and process routines to a high degree of consistency, and they are also used to working on other people’s sessions and know what to expect of an iXG capture from a particular content type, or source.
One thing that is not often mentioned is that because of the setup configuration and the fact that the film plane is a few inches above an LED lightbox, it is a lot more forgiving, compared to a drum scanner or a flatbed scanner in terms of revealing scratches and dust, since the light is well diffused and less directional. When the time comes, and if we find that we need to increase our capacity, either in London or in one of the other locations, we might be looking to get another system. This will allow us to have the extra flexibility when scanning larger objects, but we can also dedicate each system to certain object types and sizes and thus to increase our throughput even more and perhaps retire some of our legacy scanners.
2021 has started with another lockdown so again we have some limitations in terms of who can be on-site and when, but for my team we remain busy and are managing to stay productive. Looking ahead, there may not be a practical need to have all staff on site full time anymore, but the physical collection still exerts a powerful pull, and I think we all miss the personal interaction as well. Our Conservation, Curatorial, Darkroom and deep-file Research teams have work to do that can only be undertaken at the Archive, so we are looking at how we can re-organise for a wider return when conditions allow.