Peering into the box of oddments I am filled with apprehension. How many hands have these images passed through? How many more hands could leave their grease marks? How many more times could these irreplaceable items be grasped, gripped, lifted and pawed over.
But why should I worry? Give it another 20 years and nobody will recognise who is in these photos. They are irreplaceable but fading from view… fading in the photos… fading in our memories.
I could have sent the whole lot to a scanning bureau. It would have saved me time. Those machines can ingest a whole photo album in minutes and regurgitate something that meant nothing to anyone. But it was important for me to be there at the birth. To know what was being revealed (just like Carter at Tutankhamen’s entrance).
So I started on the first clump of memorabilia. All from different eras, in different formats and different states of deterioration. I overcame my guilt in handling these artefacts. If I was to be one of the many adding their grease marks, I would at least make sure that this time they all became part of the digital record. Then we could find out who are in the pictures.
It kicks off with a steady humming noise as the scanner passes over the image with its unseen light. Then the image appears on screen, as indecipherable as it was in real life – . still with that cloudy faded appearance with figures barely visible .
Then begins the recovery process – a step-by-step rejuvenation made possible by photographic software (the ubiquitous and ‘cheap as chips’ version of Photoshop).
Step 1 – Adjust the levels. It’s like magic. Adjusting the light levels transforms the faded black-and-white image into something truly vital – in the here and now. Now I know I’m looking at three figures and a dog sitting on a pebbly beach.
Step 2 – Sharpen part of the image (not all, because not everything welcomes that treatment). Using the ‘selection tool’ I highlight the text that is barely visible above the boy’s cap. After sharpening, the words ‘CORONATION’ appears. I’ve got a choice here between George V (June 1911) or Edward VII ( August 1902). My hunch is that it’s denoting the Coronation of George V – so the photo is sometime soon after.
Step 3 – Cleanup large stains. There is a monstrous stain above the shack in the background. I could use the ‘spot healing’ tool but this would simply create a large area of ‘ blandness’. Instead, I use the ‘cloning’ tool that enables me to replace the damaged area with undamaged space immediately adjacent to it. In this case it allows me to keep the texture of the sky. Further down, the cloning tool is even more useful for replacing damaged areas of the pebbled beach.
Step 4 – Remove dust marks using the ‘ spot healing’ tool . This has the magical effect of removing unruly white or black dust spots , using the surrounding pixels as a guide to choosing replacement shades. I would suggest using this sparingly as using it too liberally can obscure precious details. That means using a brush that simply covers the offending artefact without smudging over the entire area.
Step 5 – Colourising the image. Okay, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I hear you say ‘is not authentic’. Well mottled grey beaches are not authentic. Grey skies are not authentic (unless you live in Manchester). So I’m on a mission to give back colour to our forebears. After all, they enjoyed colour as much as we did! And if you’re thinking that colourising can be achieved with the simple choice of a Photoshop drop-down menu think again. If you’re going to get it right, you need to spend time making manual adjustments to the hue and saturation levels of skin, clothing, scenery and objects.
Well that’s it. My photo archiving process in a nutshell. Now all that remains is for me to do is the research. Who is in the image? Where was the image taken? What became of the people in the image and how do they relate to me? This archiving process seems to raise more questions than answers. But to start with, this reimaging has brought these people to life. I now want to get acquainted with them.