Bringing Images Back to Life:
Creative Solutions from the Photographic Restorer

In an age characterized by visual saturation, historical images still have the power to take us back to particular moments in time. Such is the case with the reproductions that comprise the exhibition, In Small Things Remembered: The Early Years of U.S.-Afghan Relations. The presentation is based on photographs and documents from over forty repositories and private collections. These include official holdings such as the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Department of State, as well as the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., and the Afghan National Archives in Kabul. Images from these lenders are accompanied by materials from universities, past U.S. ambassadors, and people who worked in Afghanistan in education, cultural diplomacy, and infrastructure development from the mid-20th century.

To assure the greatest possible selection pool for In Small Things Remembered, its curators chose images with the understanding that even the most damaged photographs might be brought back to life through digital technology. This is where my work began. Although I did not have the luxury of printing from negatives, in most cases, I worked with scans of the original prints. These digital images reflected photographs of varied size and quality, many with defects, such as tears, abrasions, stains, dust, and scratches. Disparities in lighting had also occurred when flash bulbs highlighted one portion of a photograph causing details to be obscured or to disappear into the shadows. In some cases, bright sun-drenched scenes and white-collar shirts appeared bleached, while in others, images were poorly printed, partially faded, or both.

To remedy these “maladies” and to create a first-rate exhibition without compromising the integrity of the archival images, I cropped some photographs to better focus the viewer’s attention or adjusted them by several degrees to properly frame the setting. Contrast and brightness also were altered to produce more robust tones. Sometimes even stronger measures were required, such as the removal of obstructions or slight additions to the margins of an image to assure that important details would not be covered by the mat.

Images in the exhibition range between 1200 and 5000 pixels per inch, and such high-quality files required great attention to every detail. It is important to note that preservation is more than manipulating a file in Adobe Photoshop. Each image can take many hours and there are philosophical debates surrounding photographic restoration – more than can be addressed here – that concern the appropriate degree of treatment. The basic question is how much is enough or too much, and at what point is the final result too “perfect.” I prefer to make images “shine” in a way that might have pleased their photographers while still preserving the integrity of the photograph as an artifact unto itself.

Three Examples:

 

     
     
 
     
Before.   After.
     
     
President Warren G. Harding. Marion, Ohio, 1920. Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society. AL03540.

This photograph of President Harding was one of the most problematic in the exhibition. Only the center of the image had a reasonably good tonal scale. Restoration involved accenting whatever suggestion of tone still remained. It required me to understand the density of color in each section of the photo, such as the mixture of bright sun tones leading into the shaded enclosure. The challenge was to darken the men seated on the left and to extend this to the columns and the flags on the house and the foreground. Another objective was to lighten the highlights, while keeping them slightly darker than Harding himself and to make him subtly more prominent. On a micro level, I focused on the President’s face and lightened his eyelids and other features barely visible. In the end, the image was cropped to best fit the presentation in the exhibit.

 

     
 
     
Before.   After.
     
     
“Princess Fatima” and her entourage in the U.S. Capital. Washington, D.C., 1921. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. LC-F8-15225.

The damage and fading in this photograph, particularly on the left, were so profound that it made my job easier, because there was no way to fill in the missing details. I gave the bleached-out sky a 10-percent gray to soften the harsh black and white tones. I also darkened the fadeouts in the gray of the men’s suits and the princess’s hair to approximate tones that might have been there, as well as to match and extend these shades throughout the print. The result was then burnished with a sepia tint to suggest its vintage 1921 pedigree.

 

     
 
     
Before.   After.
     
     
Frederick M. Lege, III, brings prized cattle to Afghanistan. Kabul, 1962. Courtesy of Jane Lege Yager.

This type of digital restoration can be likened to replacing a weathered wall with new sheetrock and slapping on a fresh coat of paint. The print’s condition suggests that the photo had suffered water damage and that the surface had adhered itself to another photograph or object while the emulsion was still wet. Restoration involved patching the remaining surface of the landing strip to cover the water damage and extending other parts of the photograph such as the white stripes on the airfield. In addition, I equalized light tones before adding contrast, thereby creating a richer image. The damage, though somewhat disguised, it is still apparent and thus maintains the integrity of the original image.

After my photographic restoration was completed, the final leg of the exhibition’s journey led to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and to James Schoomaker’s 204 Studios where these museum-quality exhibit prints were produced. Ultimately, over 100 photos and documents, many of which had suffered the vagaries of time, were brought back to life – permitting the Meridian exhibition curators to tell the important story of U.S.-Afghan relations in a visually compelling fashion.

 

Tad Hershorn
Media Archivist
Institute of Jazz Studies
Rutgers University

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