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The city of San Francisco was one of the earliest battlegrounds in the fight for gay rights in America, and few names are more synonymous with the gay rights movement than Harvey Milk.

The first openly gay man elected to public office, Milk was not just an iconic figure in the gay rights movement, but an integral character in the story of San Francisco itself. In recognition of his life and legacy, San Francisco International Airport’s (SFO) newly renovated Terminal 1 will be dedicated in Milk’s honor, and will house both temporary and permanent exhibitions to memorialize the civil rights leader.

The task of producing images for the exhibition was given to Kai Caemmerer, curator of photography, and Chad Anderson, photographer, at the SFO Museum. Both realized early on that developing an exhibition representative of Milk’s legacy was no small task. The plans for the exhibition called for large prints and would require the digitization of photographs, documents, and newspapers, a majority of which were sourced from the Harvey Milk Archives – Scott Smith Collection in the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center at the San Francisco Public Library.

Though the SFO Museum team was granted full access to the collection, there was a catch – the collection could not leave the library, so they would have to digitize the exhibition pieces on premises. While this initially seemed to be a hindrance, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

The SFO Museum had a passable flatbed scanner, but needed something much more powerful to generate images with the appropriate quality to print at the sizes needed. Ontop of that, they needed a faster system, as the work had to be completed in time for the terminal’s unveiling in mid-July. They were faced with a seemingly impossible task and a rapidly closing deadline, but fortunately they weren’t alone.

Better Together

Many fields are fiercely competitive and guard their equipment and knowledge closely; the cultural heritage field is fortunately not among them. As part of a vibrant, diverse, and widely collaborative community, Caemmerer and Anderson knew that they could reach out to other cultural heritage organizations and find partners with that would have the resources they needed.

They found just the collaborators they were looking for in Christina Moretta, Photo Curator of the San Francisco History Center, and Mike Levy, Digital Imaging Specialist, of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). With a proven track record of digitizing collections in extremely high quality, Moretta and Levy were in charge of managing and digitizing SFPL’s extensive historical photo collection. As trusted stewards of the city of San Francisco’s cultural heritage, they were eager to assist with such a historic project.

The Secret Weapon

When it came to achieving uncompromising image quality and high efficiency, the SFPL team’s secret weapon was their use of modern instant capture technology. Using their recently acquired DT Versa system, the group set out to determine whether or not the project would be feasible.

The concept behind instant capture technology is simple. With legacy line scanning technology, rapid, high quality digitization is impossible due to lengthy line scan times. But with an instant capture system, objects are imaged using an area array sensor, capturing the full object in just fractions of a second without any movement. With the DT Versa handling camera movement and object placement, capturing images was virtually as simple as taking a picture on a cell phone. With scan times no longer a limiting factor, the project was only limited by the speed at which the team could move objects on and off of the system.

Of course, speed is irrelevant if it comes at the cost of image quality, so the next test was to see how the DT Versa measured up. Because the SFPL system was built around a 100MP CMOS imaging sensor, a stellar Schneider-Kreuznach lens, and a rigid DT RCam body, after just a few quick tests, it was apparent that enough detail could be captured to make the large billboard-size images the exhibition called for. So not only was the project feasible, the team now had extra time to take things to the next level.

New Opportunities

Now that the team had solved their quality and throughput problems, they began exploring additional creative options to make the best possible images for the exhibition. Many newspapers and documents were imaged with raking light to accentuate surface detail, which would visually add texture to when it was printed on the metal. With a traditional scanner, the angle of incoming light is fixed and cannot be controlled, but on the DT Versa, adjusting the light angle is quick and easy. The Versa’s two DT Photon XL lights were tilted on their light stands to an angle that showed not only the content of the document, but the texture of the material and surface as well. Capture One Cultural Heritage software even enabled the team to turn one light off to emphasize details and computationally compensate for any of the uneven illumination. A key part of the overall solution, Capture One Cultural Heritage allowed the team to drive capture, processing, and quality control of the entire process all within one program.

The Actual Production Run

With the SFO team’s mastery of photography and lighting, and the SFPL team’s expertise with archiving and digitizing, a veritable “dream team” had been assembled for this critical project.

The terminal celebrated its grand opening with a Community Day this past week, showcasing the exhibit, and will begin operating flights and opening gates throughout the year and into 2020. The full installation will remain on display through summer 2021, and a smaller, permanent exhibition will remain thereafter. Be sure to check out this celebration of Harvey Milk’s legacy, and incredible display of cultural heritage collaboration next time you visit SFO!

Interested in learning how Digital Transitions solutions can bring your cultural heritage project to the next level? Contact us for a free consultation at [email protected]!