Imaging specialist, archivist and photographer
by Ethan Murphy
Q.To begin, what is your educational background?
A.Okay. I did my undergraduate degree at the Alberta University of the Arts. I have a Bachelor of Design in photography. I studied visual communication, design fundamentals, and a lot of colour theory. The program mostly trained me in commercial photography, not fine art. I didn’t do darkroom work in my undergrad, but I did do four years of darkroom before my undergrad. My father is a photographer. I then got a Master of Arts in the Film and Photography Preservation program at Ryerson University.
Q. In your undergraduate degree, were you working in a shift from analogue to digital?
Kind of. Yes actually, I remember getting my first digital camera right before starting undergrad.
Were you volunteering anywhere or working anywhere during your undergrad?
I’m American and I did my undergrad in Alberta, so I could not work in Canada at that time. They didn’t allow you to have a work visa and a student visa at the same time. So I couldn’t work anywhere. But I did shoot for people.
Q. What kind of work were you making around that time?
The program was focused on commercial practices, so I ventured more into the fashion side because in fashion you are able to exercise your own voice at that level. When you’re still in school, you’re playing every part: you’re the art director, you’re the photographer, you’re the retoucher—you’re doing everything.
So I was actually building sets and building sculptures and creating my own body of work. But the photographs that came from that looked very commercial. So the end product for my assignment I didn’t see as being the work, really, it was just the result. Everything that I created leading up to it was the work, the process.
Q. After your undergrad did you go back to the United States?
No, after I graduated I shot editorials for few magazines, and couple years went by and it just didn’t fulfill me mentally. Then I moved to Toronto and decided that I wanted to further my education.I originally thought that I wanted to do a Master’s in colour theory or something to that effect, or in programming. I’m very interested in computer vision, but I found this program at Ryerson and it was perfect.
Q. At what point were you allowed to work in Canada? Were you in school?
After I graduated from my undergraduate degree, [I could] apply for a postgraduate work visa, and then when I came and did my Master’s I was able to work at the same time.
I’m curious about how the Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management program influenced the way that you thought about images, coming from Commercial Fashion.
I think that I was very aware of how little knowledge I had in terms of photo history. And in fashion, you see people creating images and they don’t really understand what they’re referencing a lot of the time. I found that knowledge gap really strange. So I think that the program showed me where ideas came from. But the thing that really stuck with me from that program is it showed me to look at photographs as objects, not as images. So to this day, I— when I look at a photograph, I don’t see the image first. I see the support, I see the process, I see the condition, and then I see the image.
Q. After that program what did you do?
During the program you’re supposed to do an internship, and I really wanted to work for Greenpeace. And even though it’s a non-profit, it’s actually really hard to get your foot in the door.So when I was in that program and was required to do an internship, I proposed that to them. The Greenpeace in Toronto was the first Greenpeace ever started, and their archive of photographs is incredible.
Then I got a second internship. I was only supposed to do one, but I was trying to extract as much experience as possible from the program. So I got an internship with Edward Burtynsky, whom I had been interested in since undergrad. I have written papers on his work and never had any idea that I would be able to work for the man.
I really respect what he does, and when I got a position with him I found the gaps in his studio and filled them, then got a position after my internship with him at the studio as his publications archivist and research associate. I wanted to be making images as well. A position at the Ryerson Image Centre opened up, and I almost didn’t even apply because I didn’t want to give up my position at Burtynsky Studio. But I applied and got the position here, and I was able to keep the other position as well. The first year that I worked at the RIC I worked there full time. I worked at Ed Burtynsky Studio on the weekends and I also worked as Elaine Ling’s archivist at night, so I was working around seventy to eighty hours a week.
Q. Wow, that is incredibly busy.
Yeah, it was really intense. Elaine Ling had been diagnosed with cancer so she really needed somebody to organize her body of work, which was incredible. I mean, she was printing 20 x 24” fibre prints in the darkroom, and she had thousands of them and they were just beautiful. She shot Polaroid Type 55, and she had every negative and every positive and every print and all the printing notes. It was incredible! We had to get all that organized and donated to an institution before she died—and I don’t know how I did it, but we managed to secure its place at the University of Toronto about a week before she passed.
That is amazing!
Q. When you were at Greenpeace was that an archivist position? At Ed Burtynsky’s studio, was that more of a multidisciplinary position?
At Greenpeace I was originally asked to come in and organize their archive. But what ended up happening was because I had these skills as a photographer, I ended up creating ads for them instead. I was working on the archive at the same time, but I worked on this ad for rating tuna companies.
At Ed Burtynsky’s I was the intern, so I was just filling in the gaps, but I ended up finding a position as the publications archivist. He has collected every publication he’s ever been published in since the eighties, so I recorded the provenance of his work. I designed a database and organized every publication in his library. I’ve also worked on a couple of his books, finding and doing research. I acted as associate editor for his publication Essential Elements.
At the RIC I’m the Digital Asset and Imaging Specialist. I was originally hired at the Ryerson Image Centre to just scan prints from the Black Star Collection—8 x 10” silver gelatin prints on a flatbed scanner. And what happened was, I came in and there was no standard for how they were actually imaging these objects. I did a lot of research and designed a standard. Now we’re scanning everything to FADGI standards, which are federal standards for imaging. And then pretty quickly I moved away from that, and I don’t usually touch my scanner at all anymore.
Now I’m trying to shoot a lot of the more complicated items in the collection. One of the major collections that I’m working on is the Berenice Abbott acetate collection, and I shoot those with different lighting types, all visible light. I do a lot of research on how to represent photographic objects. So I’ve sort of redefined this role here—and that’s what happens in every role that you’re going to be in, you know? You’re never going to find a role that defines exactly what you do or who you are. You go into it and roll and massage it, and you make it your own by providing your unique skills.
Q. So what exactly is the Ramsey method?
Oh, so I came up with the Ramsey method a couple years ago. It’s basically an edge detection method for planar objects. Most of the time photographs are seen as images, not objects. I prefer the latter, and image everything retaining the edge, but the problem with the scanner or a camera is when you photograph the edge, you’re actually receiving information from that edge, right?
It’s not pure 255 white, and when you put something on the internet, which is how everybody accesses images these days, what you have is, you have the object on a sort of off-white background, on a 255 white background. So the human eye can understand what the edge of this print is but computers can’t. What I have and what I’m trying to do is extract the object so that it’s just floating on 255 white so that you can detect the edge.
So the Ramsey method was originally a green-screening method for planar objects on a flatbed scanner. I’m still not very happy with it because the reflectance of the green sometimes comes back onto the print itself, which is hard to extract. But I’ve actually updated the method to a script that I’ve written to detect the edge in a file, which is a lot better. I use that on everything now.
Q. Do you mean there is coloured fringing on the edge from the green screen?
Yes. I wanted it to be automated. I want to scan a hundred things and then run the script and have the background just extracted from it, and if there is that coloured fringing around the edge it looks terrible. But now that edge detection is better and I am moving away from that.
Q. What is the most memorable or favourite project that you’ve worked on?
That’s hard. I might have to pick two. I worked on a publication at Ed’s called Essential Elements, and that was a huge privilege to work on because I learned so much about publication and I got to talk with a lot of incredible scholars. At the Ryerson Image Centre, by far the Berenice Abbott acetate project. That was actually my reason for taking the position here. Her work in the archive pulled me in.
I’m very proud of that project. I don’t think anyone’s done anything like that before.
Q. Do you think that collection has pushed you as a practitioner?
Absolutely. I understand light in different ways now, I feel comfortable knowing how to image things, how to see certain things. I’m designing some lights now to shoot things because of that project and learning how to do that. It’s going to be amazing! Traditional copystand lighting is not ideal for planar objects. So I’m designing a lighting setup specifically tailored for them. Hopefully it will be done by the end of this year, but that’s sort of my next big thing that I’m excited about.
Q.A couple of last questions. What are the qualities necessary in order to be a good Imaging specialist/archivist ?
Attention to detail is huge. I’ve worked with other companies that are doing imaging, and they don’t see really simple things like how photographic objects come with different issues. If they’re deteriorating or the silver has migrated to the surface, what happens is you get silver mirroring in the image, and you have to be able to know how to get rid of that. Imaging certain photographic processes can be very complicated.
The other really important thing for digital preservation is to be able to think big picture. You can’t really be in a tunnel. When you’re working on a project you have to really know exactly where that image is going to end up. When you’re working on a project as an artist and you are working through it, sometimes it just becomes something that you didn’t really plan. You can’t really work that way as an imaging specialist. Working in preservation you have to be able to predict the use. For example, the Ryerson Image Centre was scanning all the objects at a very low resolution because they only needed them as reference thumbnails for their database. So why would they scan them at a preservation level if they’re only going to be using them for the database? Well, the problem is that researchers want to be able to publish these things.
They want to be able to look at them, and if their scan is a thumbnail you can’t even see the image at all. What’s the point? So I scan everything at a preservation level, and from that point I can make anything from it. I think about every possibility for a researcher and I create an image for that.
It is a lot of research and big-picture thinking like the Abbott acetate project. How do you image a negative? You put it on a light table and you photograph it with transmitted light, right? Well, how do you see the retouching? How do you document the surface deterioration? I don’t know what somebody’s going to want in ten years from now. So I’m planning for every possible question that someone in the future might have and providing material for that.
Sounds like the research associate position prepared you for that.
Yes, absolutely. Working at Ed Burtynsky’s studio has totally changed me. You go into that studio and they just completely support each other.
I’ll never forget this one time that Ed came in and I had just started my internship, and everyone was running around with their heads cut off because they were in the middle of his project Water. They had an exhibition, they had a film, they had all this stuff. Everyone is up to here, drowning in work, and Ed walks into the office and says, “I have an idea for this project.” And I immediately thought, “Wait till we’re done with this work, you know?” I didn’t say that, but I expected everyone else to. But they didn’t, they were immediately so supportive and started taking notes and bouncing ideas off of each other. The team at his studio have truly made me a better person. It has taught me to always be supportive of your colleagues and any ideas that they have. Their idea might be terrible, but it takes—what, an hour?—to try it, and if it doesn’t work: “Sure, next idea.” At least you tried it and are supportive, but if you’re constantly telling someone no, no, no, it’s just not the best environment to be working in.
Q. To wrap it up, what does the future look like for you?
I really want to get deeper into computer vision and deep learning. I’ve been teaching myself Python, which is a programming language. The lights that I’m trying to build work with Arduino. So I’m going to have to learn C++, which I don’t know—and I’m not really looking forward to learning another language. I hear it has all of these weird compiling issues, but once you learn the syntax of one programming language, I think it’s pretty easy across the board to pick it up. So I do that in my spare time.
I love automation. I don’t do anything manually. I’ll take a hundred files and I will spend a month working on a script to edit them in a batch rather than going through and editing them manually, which may take me two weeks. I would rather spend months writing a script because in the long run that will save me, but most people don’t see it that way. I’ve authored a couple scripts and I’m moving in that direction.