Corbis Brings Ansel Adams Online

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How do you correctly represent a cultural icon on-line? That’s the problem that faced Corbis Corporation, the Seattle image collections and services company, and the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust of Mill Valley, CA as they collaborated on creating the first authorized Ansel Adams web site and store that went live late last fall.

Through a tight working relationship, a meticulous workflow, and some decisions that seemed counter to common sense on the surface, the result was a site that both groups feel was a success.

The two companies had previously worked together on a CD-ROM presentation of Adams’s work though cancelled the project when the market for CD software other than games collapsed.

"[Both organizations] spent a lot of money and worked our asses off, then it was obvious that if we finished, no one would buy them," said William Turnage, trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

Yet as use of the Web expanded, the Trust saw it as a new tool to advance Adams’s work. Approaching Corbis with the idea, the two decided to create a site to showcase photos of Ansel Adams and make books, prints, and posters available, becoming an adjunct to the paper publications. What they learned was the uniqueness of the photos made for some unique problems.

It became clear that fidelity of reproduction was a major hurdle. Though most designers, artists, and photographers would hate to agree, the presentation of most graphics on the web is far from critical. On one hand, a Web site has no control over the calibration and settings of a user’s monitor and system, so designers must usually count on a lowest common denominator of 256 colors and 640x480 resolution, which will not present visual work in the best light. On the other hand, the reproduction of most Web graphics is not that critical, since viewers have rarely seen them before and will accept the screen image as the correct one.

The images of Ansel Adams, however, fall into a different category. He may be the most recognized name in photography, with haunting, rich, glowing images of deserts, mountains, and stark buildings. When people see an Ansel Adams photo, it is unlikely to be for the first time. And because of the care the Ansel Adams Trust takes in overseeing reproduction of posters and books, that initial experience creates high expectations.

With the best of intentions, screen displays of Adams photographs could only be an approximation of the original experience.

"We realized it was going to be an issue, because you have images that are iconic in nature," said Bruce Waterman, imaging director at Corbis. What the partners decided was to forgo a visual duplication and instead recreate of the emotional experience of seeing Adams’s work in print.

To achieve this, the Trust gave Corbis extraordinary access to their archives, including negatives and production prints used to make posters and other types of publications, many of which had Adams’s own production notes.

I actually had the negative of ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico’ in my office," remembered an awe-struck Waterman. "It was exciting!"

Interestingly, Corbis scanned from prints, not negatives. The reason was fidelity. Though negatives are the ultimate source of each image, people are used to seeing reproductions on photographic paper, which has different contrast and tonal qualities from the negative. Adams also widely used special photo printing techniques to selectively lighten, darken, and otherwise manipulate areas of prints. Negatives don’t accurately represent the print.

Since people were used to seeing print images, Corbis generally scanned the 8 x 10-inch production prints on a Scitex Smart 342 flat CCD scanner, which was top of the line at the time. The reason for flat scanning was because the prints were originals and the Trust didn’t want to use a drum scanner, which could damage them. By making a relatively flat scan, they could capture the full range of visual information to the greatest extent possible. Because the images would be viewed on a monitor, they were scanned in RGB.

"We would take those full resolution files and make a smaller version - a 1280 by 1024 [pixel] size," explained Waterman. "That’s what we corrected for online use." Corrections were made in comparison to the images printed by Little Brown, the Boston firm that publishes the Adams books. Corbis needed to warm the images slightly to match Little Brown’s duotone process.

That work was only the beginning of an arduous process in which Corbis worked Andrea Stillman, a former lab assistant of Adams. An imaging expert would work on prints for three weeks, then Stillman would fly in to review and help fine tune the work. The process took five months to prepare over 400 images, far longer than than Corbis would take for normal stock images.

"It wasn’t necessarily to match it exactly," said Waterman, "but maintain the flavor of what he was trying to get to. Andrea felt it was something [Adams] would have been totally in support of."

For the most part, the results were what Corbis and the Trust had hoped for. In a few cases, though, the scans were disappointing because areas might be too light or too dark to reproduce. Then the Trust would pull the negative and Stillman would create a new print, making the necessary adjustments.

Not only did Corbis try to match the feel of Adams’s print, but also the design sensitivities of the Little Brown books and posters. The company worked closely with the Trust and Little Brown "to make sure that what we presented was consistent [with the publications," said David Rheins, vice president of Corbis Productions, the consumer products group. That included a signature gray scale as well as Futura as the typeface according to Corbis senior designer Brian Speight.

"I think the Trust’s attitude is that people who are enthusiastic about Ansel Adams will come to the site with the knowedge with equipment that will view things in the best way possible," said Speight.

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