When photographs deteriorate or are damaged, there is frequently a strong
desire by the owners to restore them to their original appearance and
condition. There are many physical and chemical treatments that can be
used to improve the aesthetic, informational, and physical strength of
an aged photograph. However, many factors may limit their effectiveness.
In fact, owners should be aware that almost any treatment of an original
photograph carries with it a potential to do as much harm as good. Amateurs
should never treat photographs of important cultural, historic, aesthetic,
collecting value, or even just sentimental value. Only within this past
decade has the science of professional photographic conservation come
into its own right. Photographic conservators are developing many ways
of reviving and reclaiming deteriorated photographic images.
There are five recognized forms of restoration:
I'll talk about each of these below.
Because of today's technology, the newest form of restoration is electronic
and more properly called Electronic Image Enhancement (or EIE). In this
system, the picture to be restored is scanned and the electronic signals
are digitized and projected onto a computer monitoring screen. The operator
can remove blemishes in the photograph such as a scratch, tear/rip, or
stain, etc. Although the technology has been realized, sophisticated software
and hardware make this process quite expensive. In addition, if the software
is inexpensive and affordable, then the programs are usually not very
sophisticated. Because of the lower resolving power of the printers, the
results are not as good as that of a good photograph.
If the software is very expensive, it
is usually very complex to use. Because of the expensive hardware, software
and cost of a highly trained operator, the only way this technique is
affordable is if you have your own equipment and do it yourself. However,
this will all change within the next few years as software and hardware
becomes less expensive and the software becomes more user-friendly.
Chemical restoration is based on redevelopment or bleaching and redevelopment.
A badly faded black & white photograph may have an image that is barely
visible. Technically, what has happened is that the metallic silver in
the image has been oxidized to form a colorless silver compound. If the
faded photograph is redeveloped in a black & white developer, the silver
in the faded areas will be converted to silver metal and the results may
be a considerable improvement over the faded original. A more effective
procedure is to bleach the faded image and then redevelop. There are a
couple of serious reservations about using either of these techniques.
First and foremost is the possibility of causing degradation of the old
emulsion to the extent that it will be irreversibly damaged. Second, bleach
and redevelopment irreversibly changes the original. You should never
allow any work to be done to your photograph that cannot be undone. Only
photographic conservators should be allowed to work on an original photograph!
Another technique used to improve faded photographs is called physical
restoration. There are two procedures used and both are very technically
complex. Neutron Activation has provided very good results from faded
images and is nondestructive so reversibility is not a problem. This procedure
is a complicated interaction of several techniques: neutron irradiation,
autoradiography and photography.
Another physical restoration technique is the use of x-ray
fluorescence. The idea here is to scan the photograph with a beam of x-rays
and make a photograph of the x-ray fluorescence of the silver atoms in
the photograph. Again, although this is a nondestructive method, the equipment
needed for this is elaborate and not yet fully developed. In addition,
the costs could be prohibitively expensive costing more than $5,000 per
image. Therefore, the original image would need to have more than a sentimental
value to the owner.
By far, the least expensive restoration is the photographic copying
and duplication technique. The duplication process makes it possible to
generate corrections and changes to original transparent materials such
as negatives and positives. Tone reproduction can actually be improved
by reducing or increasing contrast in the duplicate. Copying is particularly
helpful in lightening stains or enhancing faded prints, daguerreotypes,
ambrotypes, albumen and salt prints. Older family photographs have unknown
or undetermined stability. A copy negative and a print from a reliable
custom lab could have archival stability if that is available and you
specifically ask for it. Finally, copying provides a way of producing
reprints in quantities. Photographic copies could also be considered an
insurance policy to provide the protection for loss or deterioration of
your precious family photographs.
The last type of restoration is the airbrush technique that usually requires
the skills of an accomplished artist. The artist uses a special paintbrush
that combines compressed air with the pigments to "atomize" the paint.
There are several steps required for this process and a brief explanation
will give you an understanding as to what is involved in this common form
of restoration. A copy print is made and used as a work print because
work should never be done on an original. The first step is to reduce
unwanted dark areas with a photographic bleach. Depending on the concentration
of the bleach and the length of time it is allowed to come in contact
with the print, this step helps to "clean up" the highlights (light areas)
as well as opening up or lightens the darkest areas where detail is still
important. Using a higher concentration and leaving the bleach on the
print for an extended period, you can reduce or eliminate the dark areas
on the print.
After the work print has been rewashed and dried, adding densities to
small areas will be the next step. This is particularly useful to photographs
that have fine cracks that show up white in the print. Then the darker
densities such as spots or other cracks can be lightened with wax-based
opaque pigments. Larger areas may require several applications to build
up to the proper density. The next step is to consider adding shading
to sections such as facial features, and adding highlights to those areas.
The artist may need to add highlights and shading to clothing, backgrounds,
hair or any object that has lost some detail. Different techniques may
be used to remove or even add a background, combine one photograph with
another, open a closed eye, repair teeth, or even remove an object or
person from a photograph, etc. Almost anything can be accomplished with
an airbrush restoration if the artist is well-qualified. However, you
should keep in mind that the more airbrush work done, the less the finished
piece will look like a photograph and the more it will look like a painting.
As mentioned earlier, the cost of airbrush restorations varies with
the amount of work needed. However, most airbrush restorations cost from
a minimum of $50.00 to no more than $150.00. Although some work can exceed
$250.00, this is usually the exception and fees this high are caused by
major restorative work.
Preserving our photographs is like preserving our history. Those that
can trace their family history for several generations are very fortunate.
To have the ability to see from whom we are descended give us a unique
vision of our heritage. How fortunate are those who have family photographs.
Furthermore, how fortunate are those that have family photographs that
have been well-preserved and need no further restorations. For historic
value or for sharing memories, let us all make a commitment to pass our
photographs on to future generations. The only way that this will be possible
is to take care of what we have today.