Photographs: Selection and Reproduction 

Introduction

The notes below outline the book’s photographic and reproduction methods. They are written with photographers, photo historians and publishers in mind, and general readers interested in photography and reproduction. The broadly chronological sections describe the evolving photographic research and negative editing; the later photo selection and design processes; and the scanning, proofing and book reproduction. The focus is on the key steps in the journey to create a book ‘greater than the sum of its parts’. Intermediate steps, and many process nuances, have been passed by due to space constraints. To ease understanding, technical terms have been kept to a minimum.


Lee Fook Chee’s Cameras and Film

Lee Fook Chee’s 1950s photos were taken with Zeiss Ikonta cameras, which in 2012 he still had. His newer camera, mentioned in the book (page 33), was in fair condition and still with its leather case. The Zeiss Ikonta was Zeiss’ top line of folding (or bellows) camera, launched in 1929. Ikontas used 120 rollfilm. In his early years, Lee used Kodak film. Later, especially when business was only average, to economize he used slightly cheaper Ilford film. In both cases, he used low-speed, fine grain film. Lee’s negatives are 61mm x 90mm, with their actual image area 56mm x 87mm.

The excellent optics of Zeiss lenses assured fine image quality, enhanced in the postwar Ikontas through lens coatings that reduced internal reflections between lens elements and minimized lens flare. Lee’s newer camera (body number 85348) had a Tessar f3.5 lens, with a Synchro Compur shutter. It could stop down to f32. Its shutter speed ranged from ‘bulb’ through one second, down the usual intervals to 1/500 second. The camera had no built-in light meter, and Lee Fook Chee did not use a hand meter. With the quite wide exposure latitude of black and white film, he judged exposures – mostly effectively – by experience and eye.


Editing the Negatives

It was clear at the start that almost all Lee Fook Chee’s photos were taken in the 1950s. On an initial viewing they fell into the areas roughly now seen in the book, with small groups of photos covering other topics: film stars, Cantonese operas, weddings, funerals, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and squatter fires. As described in the book, there was the later important discovery of negatives portraying Lee’s own life.

As with any photo editing, repeated negative viewings, studying them closely numerous times with a light box and viewing loupe, was the bedrock for the negative editing. By then there was deep familiarity with the subject range, and with the negatives’ variation in aesthetic and technical qualities.

From a total of some 600 negatives, the collection was edited down to some 240 images, about twice the number intended for publication. First, negatives that were obviously poor, because of uninteresting content, or because of technical issues, in particular weak definition or flat contrast, were eliminated. Lee Fook Chee, as he recalled, mostly shot at either 1/50 or 1/100 second, the Zeiss Ikonta’s mid-speed settings (not 1/60 or 1/125 second, as with most modern analogue cameras). He never used a tripod. As a result of Lee’s quite low speeds, and perhaps some camera shake, many of his images were soft (not sharply defined). And so, despite often fascinating subject content, with much regret they were eliminated. 

With any images, editing is central to final publication quality. Repeated rigorous editing is bedrock. Following Patricia Chiu’s and my decision to focus the book more around Lee Fook Chee himself (see pages 6 and 174), further rounds of editing followed, each one refining the selection down. For the photos of Lee’s life, we sought to include images showing all the key stages of his life from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Then, with our image scanner Johnny Leung, at Bright Arts (H.K.), we scanned, at high resolution, and proofed out, sample negatives – with low, middle and high sharpness and contrast. This was to better assess the dividing line between negatives with very sharp, sharp, slightly soft yet acceptable definition – and those unacceptably soft; and also to assess the negatives’ contrast range as it would appear in the book reproductions. Guided by these ‘high res’ proofs, we could begin the final selection.


Selecting the Final Images

The 180 potential book negatives were all then scanned at low resolution, to make positives printed on office paper. The reason for the ‘low res’ scanning and office printing is that one cannot judge images side-by-side, or in sequences, unless one has prints that one can group, regroup, compare, contrast and generally shuffle around a table. Trying to do this on screen is simply unworkable. Moreover, to begin to visualize page layouts with image compositions it is critical to have positives, even if only office printed.

With these prints as a guide, together with our book designer The Design Associates, as with previous books led by Victor Cheong, and with Philip Suen and Tony Mai, so began the process of repeated reviewing of the Lee Fook Chee negatives. Each viewing was at a higher level of visual acuity, to assess the finest image content, aesthetics and technical aspects. For the latter, sharpness, exposure density and contrast range were the key deciders.

This brought the selection down to about 150 photos. These were worked into possible book layouts, to assess how the images could be sequenced to build the visual interplay between, and within, chapter groupings. By now with a likely book layout in mind, and following final assessment by light box and loupe, a few more negatives were discarded.


Scanning and Proofing the Selected Negatives

In scanning the finally selected negatives, we had reference guides for how Lee Fook Chee printed his images. These were the three excellent prints he had given to Edward Stokes at their first discussion meeting (see page 2). Glossy gelatin prints, each 8 x 11 inches, they show Victoria Harbour, the two leading banks and a street above Central District. All three prints have strong density, high ‘midday’ contrast and sharp detail; and, compared to their negatives, all show slight edge cropping. Reflecting Lee Fook Chee’s apparent printing style, these image characteristics were what we sought to reproduce in the book, with an important caveat. If we could enhance the image definition and contrast range, and fine tune the density, we would – with modest use of digital imaging. Given the technology, no doubt Lee (or any earlier film photographer) would have done the same. Indeed, film photographers always did so. In darkroom printing, ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ were equivalent to today’s use of digital imaging to adjust contrast and density.   

The approximately 140 selected negatives, given page (and budget) limits some 20 more than could appear in the book, were scanned at high resolution by Bright Arts. Before scanning, each negative was referenced with later proofing instructions to replicate it precisely ‘as is’. Or, as for most of the negatives, to slightly adjust the contrast; to retain shadow and/or highlight detail; to shift the exposure slightly up or down; and, for some, to sharpen the definition. The scanning assumed a book printing screen of 200 dpi. To be sure of the final book reproduction, since the brightest image areas can be no ‘whiter’ than the colour of unprinted paper, the image scans were then wet proofed on the actual book printing paper – 157gsm Gold East Space Shuttle Matt Art Paper. Also, the ink take-up of different papers radically affects the final reproductions, as does any visible show through (‘shadow’ images seen through the paper from the opposite side). The proofs were made in duotone, using black and a Pantone (pure, pre-mixed colour). Used in previous books by The Photographic Heritage Foundation, this particular deep grey Pantone adds a rich lustre to the images, especially in their darker ‘shadow’ areas.

Extremely accurate scanning and subsequent imaging by Bright Arts meant that, even at first proofing, one third of the wet proofs were ‘true’: either precisely reflecting each negative’s intrinsic density, tones and contrast, or accurately delivering the image and proofing adjustments requested. The remaining two thirds of the negatives, based on new specific area comments, were then re-proofed. These second round wet proofs were all ‘true’ to their negatives or to the revised instructions. Thus, following the related Bright Arts image file changes, Lee Fook Chee’s photographs were ready for printing.


Refining the Book Design

The book’s layout, its photo placing and image sizing, were refined over some months. Mostly, helped by our experience with previous books, the initial visual concepts were retained or only marginally changed. However, as the ‘whole’ became clearer, some pages needed improving touches. About half the photos were marginally cropped, to remove edge intrusions and/or to enhance their spatial impact. The grey feature Pantone and its tint, used to highlight the section on Lee’s life (pages 14 to 63), were confirmed.


Pre-press and Book Printing

Shortly prior to printing, sample image files, the feature colour, its tint and the jacket were wet proofed on the book printing presses at Elegance Printing and Book Binding – to ensure that the Bright Arts proofs were accurately calibrated to the Elegance presses. The wet proofs were produced as duotones only; and, to assess the slight density increase from varnishing (as intended for the final printing), with a thin semi-gloss varnish on the photo areas. The book was printed by computer-to-plate, or CTP.