Historic Preservation and Photography

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about photography as it relates to historic preservation.  There’s a long history of photography as a tool in historic preservation, using old photographs to tell us about structures we don’t have anymore, and using photography to make records of structures that may be threatened in the future.

I’ve recently learned all about HABS, HALS, and HAER photography which actually require 4×5″, 5×7″, or 8×10″ large format photography, even here in 2016.  The issue isn’t that digital photography lacks detail, but that it isn’t known to be as “archivaly stable” as film negatives.

In order to experiment with this area of photography I’ve borrowed a 4×5″ Shen Hao field camera and all the accessories.  I’ve bought some film and I’m ready to give it a try.  I’ll let you know if get anything good.

In the meantime, let’s all make sure we don’t end up like this guy, who went out to take a cool nighttime photo with an old building and ended up burning down a nationally registered structure:



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Mounting and framing large prints

Although I haven’t been able to get out and take many new pictures this year, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time printing and hanging some large prints of photos I took years ago.  I’ve talked to some potential clients about some large prints for large spaces but I haven’t had many large pieces to show them, to give them a sense of how things would look in their space.

In the last couple months I’ve mounted and hung a 2′ x 4′ (24″ x 48″) print in a frame I built, and now a 30″ x 60″ print “floating.”  If you’re interested in filling a larger wall, now I have some samples to show you.

30" x 60" floating print after hanging

30″ x 60″ floating print after hanging

There are lots of extra challenges when working with large prints that you don’t have with smaller prints.  Anything up to about 16″ x 20″ you can just print (in-home, online, or at a print house), buy a frame off-the-shelf, throw it in, and hang it on the wall.

With larger prints there are all sorts of extra concerns, like how to you get a 5 foot print to your house without damaging it?  Unless it’s rolled up, you better have a minivan because it just won’t fit in your car without getting damaged. The weight of the paper itself makes the print vulnerable to creases when you handle it in any way.


The raw print before mounting. It has to be carried on the cardboard backing to avoid creasing or dings.

Then there’s the question of how you’re going to display it.  Frames this size aren’t very common and they’re probably expensive.  I chose to “float mount” it which means you don’t need a frame but you still have to mount it on something rigid – a board or some foam core or something.

Heck – even if you want to frame it you need to mount it (glue it) to some sort of board anyway because large prints don’t lay completely flat when you frame them – they have ripples that get distracting.

For both these prints I decided to spray-mount them (sometimes called “cold mounting”) to a piece of 1/8″ thick expanded PVC board as a first step.   This involved a can of spray adhesive like Scotch Photo Mount, a large flat surface, and a roller.   Cold mounting is pretty nerve-racking because you have to get it right the first time when you’re working with spray adhesive.  The print itself costs between $50 and $200 so if you screw it up and end up with a messy pile of sticky paper, you’re out some decent money right off the bat.

Spray-mounting half the print.  The other half is clamped in place at the other end.

Spray-mounting half the print. The other half is clamped in place at the other end.

For the 2′ x 4′ print I decided to frame it because I wanted it to look a little larger on the wall than it already was.  Instead of getting a custom frame made I decided to buy some wood moulding and make a frame myself.  I’m pretty handy with a miter saw and it worked out pretty well.  I spent far more in time than I would have spent in money.

For the 5′ print (30″ x 60″) I decided to just float-mount it.  First, because it’s was the easiest option.  Second, because the print is already pretty large and a frame around it would only make it larger.  (and heavier)  The primary purpose of this print is to take to potential clients’ locations to give them a sense of size so keeping it something that can easily fit in a minivan and be carried by one person is important.

The way this print is mounted it could framed later, so I haven’t given p any flexibility.

The 1/8″ PVC board feels rigid when you pick up a small piece but it’s pretty flimsy at this size, so it needs bracing.  I decided to glue 4 pieces of 1/2″ x 3/4″ aluminum C-channel to the back, which both give it rigidity and give me something to drill holes into for hanging.

The aluminum frame on the back adds rigidity and gives me something to attach wires to.

The aluminum frame on the back adds rigidity and gives me something to attach wires to.

We have picture rail in our house so our photos are hung with picture wire and picture hooks – no drilling holes in the wall.   I like picture rail because it gives us a lot of flexibility to move things around without damaging the walls at all.  Nudging something to the left or right a few inches is easy.

You can’t really tell from the picture above but there’s one continuous wire running through a variety of holes which give one loop of picture wire on each side, to make hanging easier.  The wire can be slid through the holes to even out the lengths one each side, which makes leveling the hanging photo easy.

Detail of the rail on the back, held on with Gorilla Glue.   I drilled holes for the picture wire, which I attached with ferrules with crimped ends.

Detail of the rail on the back, held on with Gorilla Glue. I drilled holes for the picture wire, which I attached with ferrules with crimped ends.

The finished product is at the top of this post.   I’m pretty happy with it.  It fits in the minivan well so if you’re interested in a large print for your space, let me know and we can talk about what works for you and possibly bring this one over for a “test fitting.”


Thanks go out to Charles Cramer for helping make the 5 foot print a reality.  After editing this image off and on for about 6 years I thought I had it all ready for him to print out but he helped me make it even better.   Charles runs workshops about editing and printing landscape photos both here in Santa Clara and up in Yosemite.  I took his class many years ago and I’ve been happy to keep in touch since then.

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OldSF – A website showing historical photos, geotagged

One of the hats I wear is Commissioner on the City of Santa Clara’s Historical and Landmarks Commission.   We are supposed to advise the City on all matters historical and one important area is documenting and conveying the City’s history.

Of course I love anything related to cataloging and geotagging photos, and I’ve found a website that does an amazing job of using technology to showcase historic photos of San Francisco, our more-famous neighbor to the North:


Perhaps we could get a grant to put something like this together for Santa Clara…

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Older Canon cameras for sale

It’s time to clear out some older cameras that don’t get as much use as they could with someone else.  Both cameras are about 8 years old and come with the boxes, the original accessories, and multiple extra batteries.  They both take pictures just fine and would be good for somebody just getting into the world of digital SLR.

Note:  I’m not including any lenses with these cameras, unless you want a broken 17-85 EF-S lens that does not focus.  It works (worked) well with the 40-D for a long time.

First is a Canon 40-D which is a “regular size” dSLR good for general stuff.   It takes Canon EF and EF-S lenses and shoots about 5 frames per second.  Read the DP Review of this camera here:   DP Review of Canon 40-d

Next is the Canon 1-D mk ii which shoots 8 frames per second and is great for sports!  This camera has had a lot of use and I purchased it used last year.  Read the DP Review of this camera here:  DP Review of Canon 1-D mkII

I just shot a football game this week with this camera and you can see the results on flickr in these two galleries here:

Gallery 1

Gallery 2

Let me know if you’re interested in any of these cameras.  I’m making good deals, especially for friends.   Cash in person, please.

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Photo location wiki or database

I’ve been thinking about restarting my website for photo location and scouting information which I abandoned a few years ago.  I hand-coded the first version but I’m thinking about using the standard wikimedia software (maybe hosting it myself or maybe using a hosted solution) this time around.   There are some geographic features I’m not sure the stock wikimedia engine offers but I’m investigating.

I don’t want to bore you with details in this email but I’ve got some ideas about how such a site would be set up, roughly based on wikitravel.org but with more photos.  The idea would be some combination of the geo-based photo browsing of flickr and Google Earth, but maybe looking more like wikitravel.org.  I don’t envision it looking like a photo-rich site like flickr or 500px – the point is not to be a photo viewing site but to provide location info like access info, special equipment needed, seasonal issues, etc.

Anyway, if I were to set up something like that would you be interested in contributing information or photos to it?   Would you ever use such a website for finding photo locations?

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Warrant Canary

I just want to throw this out here to be clear:  Brian Johns Photography has never received an order under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

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Intro to Lightroom Classes Available

I list “digital workflow consulting” as one of the things I can offer to help you out with your digital photography but recently I’ve been thinking about putting together a more focused workshop that would help someone new to digital photography get up and running.

I’m thinking of a 2 hour workshop focusing on Lightroom that would work well  one-on-one or for a small group, offered at your place or mine.  I have an outline (below) but since it’s for individuals or small groups it could obviously be tailored to focus more on what you’re interested in.

Here’s an outline of what I think should be included in a class for people newly serious about digital photography:

  • Digital RAW concepts (RAW files, metadata, and non-destructive editing)
  • Organization of files on the hard drive
  • Importing into Lightroom
  • Sorting and rating
  • Keywording, organizing, and geotagging
  • The Develop module (this topic alone could take a day!)
  • Editing in outside applications
  • Exporting to to the hard drive and other services
  • Printing drafts and final copies

Optional topics could include:

  • pros and cons of printing online vs. at home
  • the book making module

Something like this would probably run about $100 for a two hour one-on-one class.  Please let me know if you’re interested in something like this!

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Photographing the Santa Clara Post Office

I was recently able to photograph the interior and exterior of the old (but still minimally staffed and used) Santa Clara Post Office.   My photography was to support a report being written by Lorie Garcia, our honorary city historian, about the history of the structure.   I was looking to document the architecture and state of the building in hopes that it will be able to be listed as Significant to the City of Santa Clara.

Flickr pictures are here:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/56685004@N00/13118735105/in/set-72157642280014303

I was pleased to meet the Supervisor of the Post Office who was more than happy to show me around and then let me photograph virtually the entire structure.  There is an office for the former Postmaster, although the Santa Clara Post Office does not still have a Postmaster.  The entire basement is pretty much unused, except for storage.  (Note to self: I didn’t see an elevator.  How do they get heavy stuff down there?  Perhaps only down the exterior ramps?)   The heat has been broken for years although there was a repairman there today working on the boiler.

There are a couple instances of woodwork that are in very good shape.  There are lots of exterior wooden windows that are beautiful on the inside but covered with dense metal screens on the outside, presumably to keep sub or wildlife out of the windows.  Most of the furnishings that remain are 60′s – 80′s style office stuff.

By far the most interesting part of the entire building is the small network of not-so-hidden surveillance tunnels called “lookout galleries” (or LOG for short) running throughout the facility.  They didn’t have a view of the public areas of the post office – they only run through the “behind the scenes” areas for keeping track of postal employees.  The Lookout even runs through the men’s bathroom (which is in the basement) although the viewports in the bathroom have been painted over.

One unique feature of the LOG tunnels is the “breakout doors” which presumably allow postal inspectors to “breakout” of the tunnels and bust people as they catch them in the act of stealing mail.  Because the LOG tunnels are elevated a couple feet off the floor, all the doors to the tunnels are also elevated two feet off the floor.  To make the doors even more obvious, they are all placarded with large “NOT AN EXIT” signs, just in case you thought the exit doors from your room were two feet off the ground.

I found an interesting article on the Internet detailing these tunnels and the difficulty of maintaining such a thing in the current environment of building codes and accessibility:

I designed a Distribution Center for Zip Code 90017. At that time the USPS assigned a staff Architect to the project conveying all their “standards”. The most challenging part of the project was a suspended surveillance tunnel with one-way mirror viewports. The general public is not generally aware of these security measures. In this day of superior electronic systems, I questioned the need for these measures, but nothing has the legal standing of personally observing someone taking your property from the mail.

The Postal Inspection Service (Postal Police) worked on this aspect with us. Los Angeles was holding up a permit on this privately owned building due to “accessibility” concerns with the tunnel which changes planes abruptly, is painted flat black inside, and has minimum lighting. At a hearing we were able to persuade them that the tunnel could not be used by other than trained, physically fit individuals. The USPS owned central Distribution Center  for Los Angeles has what seems like a mile of these tunnels.

H. Thomas Wilson AIA
Pasadena CA

And here’s a youtube video of someone going through the LOG:


There’s a whole book about this sort of thing called “Building Power: Architecture and Surveillance in Victorian America” by Anna Vemer Andrzejewski, available at fine booksellers everywhere.  And finally, the definitive word on Lookout Gallery design is the USPS’s Handbook RE-5, entitled “Building and Site Security Requirements.”  This document details design requirements for LOGs as of 2009.   Google will give you a copy.

I’m not sure if the tunnels are actually used by visiting postmasters anymore but all the tunnel access doors I found (which are very obvious because the door is two feet above the ground!) were indeed locked.  I would love to see inside the tunnels sometime, just for fun.

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The end of dSLRs for sports

As I look through ebay for good deals on a Canon 1-DmkIV for sports, it occurs to me that digital SLR cameras might not be very long for the world of high-end sports photography.  As High Def and Ultra High Def video cameras get better and better, it’s just a matter of time before the best way to capture the moment is to just capture ALL the moments, 60 times a second, and then sort through them later and pull out the stills you like.

The equipment for this is currently more expensive than a high-end dSLR but for situations where money isn’t really a big obstacle (like the NFL) I think the writing is one the wall.

Here’s a much better in-depth discussion than I could ever give over at A Photo Editor:  Is it Time To Eliminate Stills From Your Shoot?

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Hunger Bowl 2013 – thumbnail gallery

And finally, here’s the same gallery as the last two posts, but with the Thumbnail Gallery from Dot On Paper:

[nggallery id=13 template=dop-thumbnail-gallery]

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