Stuck in Time,

August 12, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

 

Recently I've been spending lots of time with a family restoration project. The photographs are black and white on double weight paper, and were produced in the middle 1940's. As you might expect, the images have lost contrast, and there is visible yellowing. What is so fascinating to me about these images is that I was very very young at the time these photos where made. In these photographs, stuck in time are my Mom and Dad, aunts and uncles, cousins, and even my sister.

 

A consequence of photographic restoration is spending a lot of time looking at the same image at high magnifications. In most of my restoration projects I do not know the people in the photograph. My focus is on the tools and techniques I use to pull out as much quality as possible. The same is true with this batch of work, however an added element is that I am seeing family members at a young age. On the screen aunts and uncles forever in their twenties are frozen mid gesture. Clothing and hair styles rendered in black and white give a classic movie effect to the scene. World War II has been over for a few years, Swing music is still popular, men wore double breasted suits, and style was still king. When I zoom in to repair some damage it is easy for me to get side tracked and try to figure out the food on the table, or the label on a bottle of wine. Then there is the out of place expression on a face, that sparks my curiosity. My memory wants to keep its reference point. There is a face that is familiar, who is that? Some family members were always adults weren't they? Yes, there's Mom and Dad looking so young. The urge to talk to them across the decades can't be resisted. Grandma and Grandpa sitting on their living room couch, behind them a floral wallpaper I never committed to memory. Further into the project a bedroom dresser that I remember well. The color and pattern of the wood always fascinated me. I wonder what happened to it?

Now I'm back to being a photographer, and I'm guessing the camera that made these shots was either a Speed Graphic or a Crown Graphic. The slow film and lenses produced a shallow depth of field, even with flash bulbs. When you fired the flash they'd give off a pop and turn gray. They remained very hot for a while, you needed to be careful when you touched them. Returning to the restoration, this image shows quite a bit of damage at high magnification. I am grateful for Photoshop, it will do a good job in a much shorter time than a darkroom restoration. I've done a few of those and have no desire to turn back the clock to those days. As I progress through all the images real progress takes place and there are now more images restored and archived than there are to the end of my project. Still, I've saved the really damaged one's till the end and my work will only get slower. Damage ranges from bits of missing emulsion, to water damage, to lots of white specks and scratches. The worst is when damage goes through a persons eye. Repairing damage that travels through a face and eye is challenging because the person needs to remain looking like themselves.

 

Regardless of years of experience, this process still seems like magic to me. Especially when I am holding a well done restoration in my hand, the people and composition come alive and look so real. It's no wonder that some primitive people thought that to photograph someone was to steal their soul. Just for a second imagine being transported back to the mid 1940's and attempting to explain the digital capture and storage we take for granted these days. Imagine trying to explain that almost all of us here in 2014 will carry a gadget in our pockets, that is a telephone, camera, address book, calender, and can give you directions how to drive anywhere. Oh, and is also good at Solitaire. Zooming in on a Chemical process photograph, with each tap of the key the image gets bigger and soon begins to fall apart. Get close enough, and all you see is an abstract pattern. Zoom out far enough and there are people who are part of your personal history, captured on film, forever stuck in time.


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