When Frans Lanting first clicked his shutter on assignment in the late 1970s, he began a prolific photographic journey that would take him around the world for more than 25 years creating hundreds of thousands of images—all on film. From black-and-white to Kodachrome, Lanting’s medium of choice—like every other serious photographer—was film. Simply because he switched to digital capture in the new millennium doesn’t somehow make a generation of iconic film images suddenly worthless.
Like many photographers, Lanting has a large archive of negatives and transparencies. But unlike some others, he has recognized the continuing value of that film for more than just posterity. Film may have gone away as a capture medium, but it continues to live on as an asset.
“It’s quite remarkable,” Lanting says, “how rapidly the photographic profession has moved from working with photographs in analog form to working with them in digital form. It’s a true revolution that happened in a matter of a few years. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the value of film. How can you best take care of an image collection full of valuable transparencies that are the result of many years of active work? For either archival, professional or commercial reasons, you want to make that film accessible. For quite a few photographers, it translates into a new opportunity.
“Because of this revolutionary shift from analog to digital,” Lanting says, “film, if it wants to be recognized at all, needs to be available in digital form. It’s silly to think all the important images from this point forward are just images created after the year 2000. In order to draw on my life’s work, we’ve had to digitize more than 25 years’ worth of the most significant film originals.”
Lanting’s studio uses a multilayered process to bring film originals into the digital era. The first step is maintaining an accessible film archive, for which he uses a battery of filing cabinets with transparencies in archival sleeves in hanging folders, organized taxonomically and by geography so that it’s searchable and easily accessible by cross-referencing a digital database.
The next step is to edit the images in order to determine precisely which ones should be digitized. In Lanting’s case, this was first done by determining the most important photographs in the collection, followed by the ongoing ingestion of images based on client needs for projects. As such, he has amassed quite a digital record of his film work.
“Editing is editing,” Lanting says. “No matter if it’s film or digital capture, you apply selection criteria that can be governed by specific projects or by general applications. We’ve done that not just once; it’s an ongoing process because we have so much work here. We have a digitized film archive of 20,000 images culled from hundreds of thousands. That’s the tip of the iceberg. Of those 20,000 images, about half are the commercial collection, which is available online for people to browse through and utilize through licensing protocols, but up front, we have to organize the transparencies in a way that enables a good editing process.
“I would like to say that we figured out a master plan from the get-go,” he continues, “and that we stuck to it and that we only digitized things once, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. I think very few photographers found the magic solution from day one because this was all a leap into the unknown. Let’s not forget that 10 years ago we were just at the beginning point of this digital revolution.”