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George Shiras III

26 September 2010
By Sean

As you may have noticed The Photo Playground went on six month hiatus. Life happened and new responsibilities were incurred both academically and personally. This next article will focus on an academic responsibility that I took on during the Winter 2010 semester. It is a project that I had wanted to work on for at least a year before I was given the green light from The Devos Art Museum, Beaumier Heritage Center, and Northern Michigan University.

As some of you may know I recieved a BFA in Art and Design from Northern Michigan University in May of 2009 and returned as a post baccalaureate Art History student in January of 2010.  While an undergrad at NMU the Melissa Matuscak, the director of the Devos Art Museum, let me browse through the museum’s George Shiras III photography collection.  I was told that the previous exhibition of his work had been in 1990 – 20 years ago – and that she was wanting to have another exhibition of his work.  My interest was piqued within seconds.  What could be better than a project that merges so many of interests?  Art History, photography, and restoration all in one project.

It took quite a bit of time to get all the details worked out, but in November of 2009 I told Melissa that I would be returning for three semesters and she offered me the project through the Beaumier Heritage Center.  I got to work on it in February of 2010 and worked right up until the day the exhibition opened last May.

So what did we have to work with?  Just under 40 silver gelatin prints made from reproduced 5×7 negatives provided by the National Geographic Scoiety.  Many of them had curled and were in rough shape.  The frames they were housed in, as you can imagine, were old and just a little tacky and really did not carry any air of sophistication that you would expect to see at a professional exhibition.

The negatives, like the prints, were also in a sorry state – more than likely from improper handling 2o years when being used for the initial exhibition.  After talking with Dan Truckey, the director of the Beaumier Heritage Center, and Melissa we decided that what was really in order was a high resolution digital archive of these photographs as well as an exhibition of freshly printed, mounted and framed photos.  I lucked out, I got to do all of the photography and almost none of the historical research, that was conducted by an intern at the Beaumier, Lindsey Strzyzykoski.

Over the course of the semester I used a large format Epson scanner to scan all of the negatives at 4800 dpi.  As I said in the previous paragraph the negatives were largely in very poor condition and required extensive digital restoration.  A good majority of the images took just less than an hour before they were printable, but there were many that took as much as four hours for each one.  I have been working with Photoshop for eleven years – I am very comfortable with the software and create a very efficient workflow.

The restoration, although well within my realm of capability, created the most trying time for me during this project.  Aside from purely visual issues I had to consider philosophical issues of the restoration of historical photographs.  Shiras was by no means a wonderful printer and often relied on the National Geographic Society to do his printing for him.  He was more documentary in his approach, as he and his assistant John Hammer are the folks who literally invented nighttime flash photography in the 19th century.  He photographed wild lands and wild life at night.

So what was I to do?  Should I enhance the images to create a more contemporary aesthetic or do I leave some blemishes and marks that imply age and historicity?  What I did know is that I had to maintain some sort of visual consistency.  I ended up employing a combination of the two.  I removed most of the blemishes from most of the images leaving the ones that I felt carried the strongest implications of historicity.  Meaning I set out to remove the dust and emulsion problems that were distracting, but left the ones that seemed to me to be more “natural” in their occurrance, that includes scratches on the negatives caused by mishandling 20 years ago.

I also had to consider the larger print as a whole.  Shiras’ original images were very contrasty, often with predominantly black grounds with little to no detail or the exact opposite predominantly white with very little detail.  I had to consider this when printing his work.  I chose to continue in this vein and produce contrasty images, although I did have to tame it down in several photographs to make them visually pleasing.  I ended up printing all but five of the images at 13″ x 19″.  Not huge, but not small either – It’s what the budget allowed for and I think that it was perfect.

The five images that I did not print were printed by The Lab in Minneapolis.  Their work is absolutely stunning, they conduct themselves very professionally, and they are very affordable.  They printed for us three 2′ x 3′ prints and two 3′ x 4′ prints and I could not be happier with the results, as I said the images are stunning and are very powerful when viewing them in person.

Once everything had been printed, information panels made, etc. Lindsey and I designed the show in two days.  The two of us and her fiancé created the historical displays, hung the work, ate some food, and had a lot of fun.  The images below are a few of the 37 prints that were on display up until last week.

*Notes on the pictures.  These images are from a PowerPoint that made before all of the images had been restored, as such several do not appear to be finished.  Although these images are now in the public domain, please be courteous and contact me before using them.

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