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Film Friday: How one photographer revived a human-sized scanner to scan his ultra-large format wet plate photos

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part Film Friday series.

Markus Hofstätter is known for creating elaborate large format cameras and contraptions, but one of his most recent projects goes above and beyond anything we’ve seen before. For this project, Hofstätter brought back to life a 73kg (160lb) ultra-large format flatbed scanner so he can better scan all but the largest of photographs he captures on his array of large format cameras.

While the project itself took three months to complete, the journey started years ago. Hofstätter had been wanting a means to scan his massive wet plates, but could never wrangle up a scanner that would get the job done. That all changed though when a friend of his notified him about a Screen Cézanne EFT-S5500 scanner that was up for sale.

This ultra-large scanner weighs roughly as much as a full-grown human and is so large that it barely fit in the rear of his SUV when he picked it up and just managed to squeeze through his front door when he brought it inside. And the logistics were just the start of the road ahead.

The scanner, which can scan 32-bit CMYK, 48-bit RGB and 8-bit grayscale images at up to 5300dpi on its 53cm x 34 cm (13.4″ x 20.9″) bed, uses a SCSI II interface and software not at all designed to run on modern computers. While it did come with a retro Power Mac (433Mhz) that would’ve somewhat worked out of the box, Hofstätter determined the speed at which he’d be able to transfer those images from the scanner to the Power Mac and to another computer would’ve taken far too long. So, he ‘upgraded’ to a Power Mac G4 Quicksilver with a dual 1.2Ghz CPU and 2GB of RAM and purchased an array of old components—some new in the original box—that would speed up the process while also being compatible with the scanner.

From there, it took some tinkering to get the Power Mac G4 Quicksilver up and running, as MacOS 9 would not run on the computer, but Mac OS X would not support the SCSi controller needed to connect the scanner. In the end, Hofstätter managed to find a workaround that allowed him to run Mac OS9 via a clever multi-boot setup and transfer scans over Ethernet at about 60MB/s, roughly 60x the speed of the USB 1.1 connection that was required for the original Power Mac (433Mhz) that came with the scanner.

With that set in place, alongside an original Cinema Display, Hofstätter was ready to start scanning.

You can see the results on Hofstätter’s blog post covering the entire process, but we’ll be saving the results for part two, which will be featured on Film Friday next week.