Photos are the way we time-travel. And more and more people, fortunately, are discovering it. I do a lot of restoration and the subsequent printing and cropping.
Here I am doing the latter, cropping a just-printed photo, just now in the store:
Restoring old photos may involve a lot more than you perhaps imagine.
There’s the obvious (but not always easy) improving of contrast, colour, white balance, saturation, sharpness, shadow areas, and so on. And the time-consuming but very effective removal of specks, scratches, tears, fingerprints, and so on. It can easily take an hour per photo and involve literally hundreds of imperfections that one by one get removed.
But there’s also local adjustments. For example, often a photo is much better if the sky is slightly less white and more blue. And if we think the sky was actually blue at the time, we will bring some of that back.
Faces have often shifted colour, or lost colour, too – they need to be brought back to real skin tones, which is a tricky but essential local adjustment.
Then there’s removal of items. I remember a bride whose favourite picture was one of her and her new husband – but the photographer had taken it with the couple standing very close to a giant “STOP – NO ENTRY” sign. That was not what she wanted, for obvious reasons, so I removed it. And there was the Muslim bride photographed close to a prominent “Jesus Saves” sign – also removed!
Perspective fixes are also very important. Often, when a picture was taken the camera was pointed upward or downward. When this is distracting or when it leads to unacceptable distortion, I fix that too.
But there’s also artistic insight. What shadow would look best in this area of the image? What colour would work best here? And when we replace an area that is missing from a print, we often need to interpret what the person would have had in that part of the picture. Especially when it involved a photo made in, say, 1844, this means research.
And research comes in in other areas, too. For example, in this picture I spent a lot of time researching the exact colour of the copper roof in 1961. Copper changes colour constantly over the years, so it was important to get it right.
Uniforms too—which I see quite a lot of in the photos that people bring to me in Ottawa—need to be right, and it can be a challenge to find out exactly what this regiment’s daily uniform or or that police outfit’s mess dress uniform looked like in a given year in the past.
We use a variety of tools, from software like Photoshop and Lightroom, and specialized software that carries out math operations, to physically retouching with carefully chosen inks. For most restorations a combination fo at least a few of these is required for best results.
But in spite of all the work required, bringing a worn photo back to good quality is one of the most satisfying things I do. Because it really is a form of time travel: as I work, I imagine myself taking the picture, however many years ago it was. And the owner’s reaction, when they see the restored photo, is a reward in itself.