Monday, April 25, 2011

Of space and film...memories of a trip to NASA

I was watching a NASA documentary this week and it reminded me of a very fun time 15 years ago when Corbis had the opportunity to access to the original film from the space program up to that time.  The collection, which included film that was taken on the moon, had ever been digitized.  Much of it is very fragile, and to that point any publication was done via color dupes. In fact, due to weight restrictions on the Apollo flights, film was manufactured without any base coating.  This can give you an idea of how conscious NASA was about every single ounce of payload and it left them with film rolls that are more like cellophane than cellulose.

NASA photos are by definition public domain--we as a people own them.  So the deal we made with NASA was that we would use our expertise in scanning, color correction, and archiving as a service and Corbis would be allowed to include the images in our digital collection.  In return we would provide NASA with full-resolution imagery of everything we captured.  Those images are available today at the NASA GRIN site, including the high-res versions.

One of the first steps taken on the Moon, this is an image of Buzz Aldrin's bootprint from the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon on July 20, 1969.  AS11-40-5877

At that time, most all film scanning was done on a drum or flatbed scanner.  In this case neither would work as the 70mm film from the Hasselblad backs was in long rolls and couldn't be cut, and maintaining the integrity of the archive was of utmost importance. 

A reel of 70mm original flight film from the first five Apollo missions, Apollo 8 through 13, is prepared for scanning at the Corbis scanning laboratory at the NASA Space Center in Houston, Texas. © Roger Resssmeyer/Corbis

Working with world-renowned space and science photographer, Corbis colleague Roger Ressmeyer, Charlie Sliwoski, Corbis Imaging Lab manager at our Seattle headquarters, and the NASA photo team,  a roll-to-roll process using the  Leica DSW200 was developed to handle the job.  Astronaut Jay Apt worked with Roger and Charlie to tweak the color from these frames that had already begun to shift in some cases.  The result was public access to images that had not seen the light of day for nearly 30 years, first viewed in the book Orbit.

Non-NASA employees were not authorized to handle the film directly, and given the sensitive nature of these priceless assets, we built a close bond with the Johnson Space Center team.  The project was considered secret, and in one of the funniest stories from the trip there was a rumor that "Bill Gates' company was funding a project to look for extraterrestrials in the NASA film archives".  And this was from NASA employees.

During the time I was in Houston, The Columbia Space Shuttle mission STS-75 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  It was really a privilege to be at Mission Control during the launch and for a few days during the mission.  Surely the days of capturing imagery on film is past and worrying about the weight of anything photographic besides the capture device is a memory but we all do owe a debt of gratitude to the folks that manned the photo lab in Houston and protected a great piece of our history for generations to come.

Want to see more NASA shots?  Take a look at this book in the Blurb Bookstore.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Steidl and POD in the same post? Outrageous!?!

If you work at a company like Blurb you really need to love books.  Not just reading them but knowing about them, about the authors, and, if you are like many of us, understanding how they are built. Because of that last point I really enjoyed the NY Times piece in this Sunday's Style Magazine on Gerhard Steidl.  The world of fine art bookmaking is fabulous and Steidl is at the pinnacle of his art.

But is there any real comparison to the painstaking hand work that represents what comes out of Göttingen and what can be expected from a print on demand publisher like Blurb?  A lot more than you think.

First off, when we started Blurb our goal was to find a sweet spot with high-end, "bookstore quality" books and a price point that allowed our customers to sell their books for a profit.  Early on that meant getting our first printing partners to buy into a whole new model of how 4-color books should be priced.  Since then the technology has advanced a bit, allowing us to build more and more process automation into our workflow which allows us to continually improve quality while keeping our prices among the most economical in the marketplace.

Some of the improvements since we first went to market in 2007 are an ever-expanding line of products that include hardcover with dust jacket or custom-printed "ImageWrap" as well as soft cover books; an all-HP Indigo global network tuned to GRACol standards, assuring consistant quality worldwide wherever books are printed; a broadening line of standard and premium papers; and, very soon, new pro-directed options.  Add to that our new standard end sheet that will be moving from white to a thicker medium-grey paper and, in our world, POD does not mean low-grade.

We are constantly looking for ways to improve our products.  Over the past month we have held sessions with design movers and shakers in Berlin, hobnobbed with some of the best photographers in the world at the Palm Springs Photo Festival, and ran various focus groups as we plan our next options.  Our new BookSmart software just released has many upgrades that come directly from the requests of our customers. And we've got some new, native digital products on their way that will reinvent the genre.  We're pretty excited.

As I get ready to head off to New York for the Publishing Business Conference, I'm reminded of how the book business has changed.  But reading the story about how Steidl goes about his craft, it's nice to see some things--like quality--are constant in the minds of those who love books.