One of the most powerful things that photography provides for us is the opportunity to look into the eyes of our ancestors. An old family photograph holds special meaning as it plays to our uniquely human desire to know where we came from. The portrait above is of my great grandmother and as I worked to preserve and restore it I could not help but look deeply into that face. That is where I came from! With very little imagination I am looking at my grandmother, my mother, my sisters, and my daughters. With a bit more imagination… I am looking at myself. I can’t say that my life would be measurably different if this portrait didn’t exist, but it does exist… and I appreciate having the opportunity to admire this young woman who would become my great grandmother.
Now would be a great time to make a commitment to gathering up those old photos that are scattered throughout your house or in your parents or grandparent’s attic and begin the process of preserving them. They are valuable in ways that can’t be measured and with every passing day the odds tilt in the direction of loosing them forever. They are deteriorating and eventually will become dust even if they are ‘safe’ in the bottom of some box that is dry and out of the light. Fire, flood, or just the simple inevitable slow decay of all things organic will eventually take them from you. If they are on display then UV light will speed that process along even faster.
Preservation and restoration are really two different things. Preservation is simply the process of capturing a copy of the original into some other medium. It could be as simple as snapping a picture of the original with a camera phone, or as I did with the photo above, create a professional level high resolutions scan. In terms of preservation the scanned image on the left accomplishes that objective. With the high resolution scan safely backed up onto a couple of different hard drives and on a cloud server the original is no longer the only copy in existence. If this initial step is the only one you have time or budget for I highly recommend getting the highest resolution copies you can manage. This will give you the greatest flexibility later when you want to restore and or print some of the images.
Restoration of an old photo is a whole different ball game. The possibilities are endless and depend entirely on what you might want as the end product. It could be as simple as a quick tweak of the contrast and little color correction to improve the look of a faded photo, or it could be a laborious repair of a photo that has cracks, tears, spots, or more… If you are not equipped to do this yourself you need to be prepared to pay someone a fair sum to do it for you. Keep in mind when you get the bill, it will take a great deal more time to repair and restore the photo that it took to create it in the first place.
The photo of my Great Grandmother is in the neighborhood of 110 years old. Needless to say I was a bit shocked when it arrived at my house via USPS along with some negatives from the 1930’s unceremoniously stuffed in an envelope with a note from my Mother asking if there was something I could do to preserve them. I have chuckled a little over this as I labored to restore the portrait, but this is what 110 year old photographs do… they travel… they sit in boxes… they get sneezed on… they bake in the sun… they endure trips through the mail… they live with us and until they are very old we don’t often realize how valuable they are. Eventually they inspire those who care to be inspired and if they are lucky they get another lease on life through careful preservation and restoration.
Photographer George Steckel took the portrait of my Great Grandmother. Steckel maintained his portrait studio in downtown Los Angles and I am grateful for the quality work that he did. He worked in a time when photography was still somewhat elusive. When having a portrait done was an important event rather than a trip to the bathroom mirror with a cell phone for a quick ‘selfie’. Thank you Mr. Steckel, like a Rembrandt painting, the quality of your work is timeless… as a portrait should be.
Now would be a great time to schedule an appointment with a competent photographer (probably harder to do now than it was 110 yrs ago)… buy some quality prints… and give your great great grandchildren a gift. (No… the duck face cell phone selfie just won’t cut it)
There is a wealth of information on the web regarding how to go about preserving and restoring family photos and any number of services. It can be difficult to know who to trust with the prescious photos and negatives. The best advice I can offer is to do your homework. Don’t send your photos or negatives to any company without knowing exactly where those images will be going. Some companies will send your photos and negatives over seas to be processed. Scary. This NY Times article on the subject is a good place to start.