One week at the Library of Congress taking photographs of the most precious and rare films. Here is a short look behind the scenes.

Every morning the fantastic and amicable Geo. Willeman, Nitrate Film Vault Manager at Library of Congress, brings in a pile of film cans from the vaults. Geo. Willeman has been working at the Library of Congress for 30 years and he knows everything about the nitrate film collection.


One portion of film cans, consisting mainly of early two-color films from the 1920s and 1930s.


Geo. Willeman, Nitrate Film Vault Manager, Library of Congress.

The camera set-up consists of a Canon DSLR camera with a macro lens. The modular set-up is fully calibrated and can be attached to any inspection bench or viewing table. A range of daylight illuminants allows the adjustment of the illumination to the film material captured. The whole set-up is remotely controlled from the laptop, where all the parameters can be selected independently according to the visual inspection of the films and the controls on the interface.


Camera set-up on the inspection bench. On most American benches the film reels are positioned upright. In the background the laptop with the remote control interface.

On average it is possible to capture photos from one reel per hour. In addition to the backlit photos of two or more film frames, it is crucial to capture areas where the individual dyes become visible, for instance at splices or on damaged frames. Furthermore the reflection properties of the films’ surface are often important for the identification of the color process applied.


On the Trek (ca. 1920), a travelogue from Swaziland. The two dyes – cyan and red-orange – are visible at the splice and in the perforation area. Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geo. Willeman, Nitrate Film Vault Manager. Photograph by Barbara Flueckiger.

During the first two days we focused on two color processes from the 1920s and early 1930s with an emphasis on Technicolor No. II and No. III. Prizmacolor No. II is another early two-color process which was used for many travelogues to foreign countries. One of the highlights is a Technicolor No. IV nitrate print of “Gone with the Wind” (1939). It will be interesting to compare the frames to the photographs taken at the Academy Film Archive a year ago.

After the shooting, all the photographs have to be labeled correctly, cropped and processed for the upload to Timeline of Historical Film Colors. The image processing will take place later this month and the photographs will then be uploaded immediately.

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Many thanks to Geo. Willeman and the staff at the Library of Congress!


Overview of some photographs taken on the first day. The RAW files will be processed later for upload to the website.


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