British photographic history

Information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history

Digitisation and the Question of Retouching

The opportunity to digitize a collection such as ours is an amazing thing. It allows for material of local and national interest to be preserved for posterity and to be shared on the internet with a whole world of people who would otherwise have no access to such a unique collection. For us, as researchers of the sitters and places depicted, it enables the access and identification of sources in faraway places that could potentially uncover information otherwise out of our grasp. In our case, these fragile glass plates could so easily have been lost, but even after their rescue and relocation to the Sutton Archives in 1978 they remained stored away, uncatalogued and largely unknown for close to 40 years. The nature of this collection and its fragile state means it is unlikely that they would ever have been ‘available’ to the public without the opportunity that digitisation offers. Digitisation will not only preserve them for posterity, it will bring them back to life. But of course, as with many opportunities of this sort, you only get one chance to get things right. The kind of investment that is required for a project of this type, both financial, and of time and commitment means that there are a number of things of which we must remain aware and must be careful to avoid or take into account.

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Comment by Costanza Caraffa on January 13, 2016 at 12:33

Dear Kath,

thank you so much for the in-depth, critical description of your work with the Knights-Whittome photographs. Your awareness for all the decisions and steps undertaken in such a digitization project, decisions that shape the results and also what researchers as well as the wider public can make with the results, is exemplary. One would wish that everybody concerned with the digitization of historical photographs (if negatives or positives) would document in such a great lenght the procedure. It is also exemplary how you deal transparently with limitations due to the ressources at your disposal, saying openly that you would make it differently and maybe better if you would have more money and professionally trained staff.

To the pragmatical and conceptual arguments, why retouching by digitizing should be limited to a minimum, I would add following points: the visible signs of time and technical errors belong nowaday to the traces on the photographs that are object of historical inquiry, especially from the point of view of a material approach. All these signs document techniques and practices of an Edwardian photographer, among them his own retouching techniques and strategies - but also the practices of selection of the "final" photographic image, I love for instance the double portraits where one of the two images is crossed out. You do it already in the case studies presented in the blog. You are completely right, it is a big pleasure to work in such a collection!

A very small critique: coming from outside in your "The Past on Glass" website I missed a short introduction on the collection and project. One has to consult single blog posts in order to put this basic information together. But as I said: great project and great blog!

Last but not least, maybe you are interested in the "Florence Declaration - Recommendations for the preservation of analogue photo Archives" which you can subscribe on I would be happy to get in touch (see our projects on

Best wishes,

Costanza Caraffa

Dr. Costanza Caraffa
Leiterin / Direttrice
Photothek des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz
- Max-Planck-Institut
Palazzo Grifoni Budini Gattai
Via dei Servi 51, I-50122 Florenz
Tel. 0039 - 055 - 2491164
Fax 0039 - 055 - 2676751
Instituts- und Postadresse:
Via G. Giusti 44, I-50121 Florenz

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