Fifty shades of blue

I haven’t written here recently because I’ve been so busy preparing teaching for the new semester at the University of East Anglia – and debating shades of blue and other design details for the ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition, which opens November 10th at The Collection in the beautiful cathedral city of Lincoln, Lincolnshire.

IMG_8937If you know anything about graphic design, you’re probably familiar with Pantone – the American company whose colour (or should that be ‘color’?) charts are used as a standard in many industries, especially printing. That’s one of the charts you see in the photograph above – spread out on the desk in my office with some A3 draft printouts of the large panels that comprise the exhibition. Pantone charts are like the paint charts you pick up when you’re decorating your house, but with a gazillion more options. Fun!

We’ve been trying to find the right shade of blue to complement the new digital scans that The Griffith Institute at Oxford University have made for the exhibition, directly from Harry Burton’s glass negatives. (‘We’ means me, a couple of trusted friends and colleagues, and designer Paul Kuzemczak of GK3 design here in Norwich.) Digital scanning is an amazing tool, and one that many photographic archives use now to make both photographic positives and negatives available – ‘flipping’ the negatives so that they look like printed positives.

But: digitizing monochrome, silver-gelatine negatives like Burton’s tends to make the flipped image look a little ‘cold’, no matter how skilled the person doing the scanning. Digital versions emphasize the deep blacks and bright whites on the negative, which are then reversed on the computer to produce the positive – the images you see above. When printing his negatives to paper back in the 1920s, a photographer like Harry Burton would have achieved softer tones of grey instead, even veering into the sepia browns that we often associate with old photographs. This depended on what kind of paper was used (in one of his letters to Metropolitan Museum of Art colleagues, Burton mentioned using bromide paper) and on adjustments the photographer could make during the printing process in the darkroom. ‘Dodging’ is the term for blocking some of the light as you expose a print, which has the effect of brightening up a shadowy area on the print and making more detail visible there. ‘Burning’ is the opposite, blocking everything else on a print while you expose a too-light area for longer and thus make it appear darker on the finished photograph. Burton, by instinct and experience, would have used both.

Digital scans from negatives create a new image, and in some ways, a different one. It’s still a photograph, but it won’t be identical to any photograph Burton printed from the same negative in the 1920s, or to prints that other photographers have created in the past century using Burton’s negatives. In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to know which prints in the Tutankhamun archives were made by Burton and which were made later – changes in the paper may be the only clue. This is normal in photographic collections, and too often overlooked by people who aren’t used to working with photographs. With few exceptions, like the daguerreotype, photography isn’t a technology of the unique. It’s a technology of reproduction and multiplication – that’s what made it so powerful a tool and so popular a medium.

For the exhibition panels, the question has been how to choose a colour that warms up the cold tones of the digital scans without overwhelming the images and texts – or, for that matter, the visitors. We pretty quickly settled on a soft blue as a good visual complement for the photographs and for the white-walled venues we have in Lincoln and at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, where the show moves for summer 2018. Shades of white and grey were too, well, grey; any kind of tan or brown or red tinge (think ‘desert’) looked flat and dead with the photographs; and other colours – like greens or golds or pinky-purples – were too ‘out there’ and competed with the photographs.

So, blue it had to be – but with a hint of warmth, even though blue is usually considered a ‘cold’ colour. I think we’re nearly there. One more sample should arrive this week from our fantastic printers, Echo House, whittling it down to our last two choices. Will it be P 120-1 U or P 120-9 U, to use the Pantone chart codes? Edge of your seat stuff, obviously. Just as well they don’t have names like ‘Luxor blue’ or ‘Pharaoh’s breath’. As someone with a kitchen wall painted in Vert de Terre, I don’t think I could handle the suspense.


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