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Restoring Damaged Photographs

by David L. Mishkin
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Bring Your Faded Photos Back to Life
Wondering how to revive your great-grandparents' wedding photo? If you're like most family historians, you have boxes of fading photographs. Learn why your photos fade and what can be done to restore them.

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.

Electronic Restoration

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

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!

Physical Restoration

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.

Copying Restoration

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.

Airbrush Restoration

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.


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