Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.
This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt is almost too easy: damaged photos. Welcome to my world. How much time do you have? Several boxes and five photo albums are filled with damaged photos that keep me occupied for hours on end looking for signs of familiarity, searching for clues to family relationships, and gleaning insight into my family’s daily lives.
When I remodeled the bonus room over the garage this past winter, I wanted to make it my “Gene Cave” (although the hubster has tried to hijack it with a “Man Cave” big-screen TV and antler mounts). Bookshelves were decluttered not just to HOLD the old albums and books of research, but also to DISPLAY them artistically. They are fine, but the focal point of the room is one wall reserved for old photos of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
As expected, some of my favorite photos are also the most damaged. Wrinkles and creases, missing corners, mildew, stains and faded images can be repaired with software like Photoshop. To restore a photo means to repair those flaws in order to return it to its original appearance. I am no pro when it comes to Photoshop, but I can remove random spots and stains; a crease is easily erased as long as it doesn’t pass through anything intricate. My brother-in-law, on the other hand, is a champ, so I put him to work restoring several photos for “The Family Wall.”
However, there has been quite a bit of conversation in the genealogy world about the ethics of photo editing. In one camp are those who believe any alteration to a photo is wrong. They hold that wear and tear is part of the life of a photo. They doubt anyone’s ability to assume or know what the original even looked like. On the other side are those who want to preserve old photos as a way to remember and honor their ancestors without the distortions caused by stains and cracks. They argue that a photo with a “nice” appearance is easier to understand and enjoy.
I side with those who favor restoration. How could anyone not prefer the restored version of my lovely great-grandmother, Mary Sudie Rucker?
Maybe because I have created so many traditional scrapbooks in which I cropped photos either to highlight a subject or simply to make it fit on the page, I’m rather cavalier when it comes to manipulating old photos. I think nothing of editing out a lot of sky as I did with this photo of my great-grandfather Walter Davis.
Did my use of the cropping tool ruin the picture? Purists would say yes – just because we CAN do it doesn’t mean we SHOULD. However, I disagree. I did nothing to alter the essence of the photo since whoever took the picture (likely my grandaunt Violetta) was focusing on Walter, not the sky. Truth be told, I would feel no guilt editing out that pole for the sake of aesthetics, but I chose not to.
This photo of my 2X great-grandfather James Franklin Jollett could not be enlarged to fit in a 5x7 frame without cutting off his feet. My brother-in-law deftly cloned some landscape in order to “stretch” the photo to fit. Did we go too far in altering the geography of the photo? I do not know what was REALLY there, and honestly, I do not care. Maybe I should, especially if there was a historically significant building or person in the background. Since I don’t know, I am comfortable assuming the background was just more of the same.
This photo of my paternal grandmother Julia Slade is just bad. The dress is totally blown-out without a sign of detail. Was it a print fabric? Lace? Were there pin-tucks on the bodice? With enough time, my brother-in-law could have fashioned quite a nice dress, but even my cavalier sensibilities said no to that. Dress notwithstanding, it is the best photo of my grandmother as a young woman so it made the Wall.
In a seeming contradiction, I cannot be more pleased with a restoration project than my brother-in-law’s masterful manipulation of the one and only photo of my great-grandfather John Fleming Walsh. It is actually two little cardboard chips, each smaller than a dime.
He “created” a jacket based on the clues in the photo. He also straightened John Walsh’s head, probably out of necessity to align with the collar. Of all the restorations, this one probably pushes the boundaries, but I have no objections. The coat seems true to the original.
Maybe I’m wishy washy. Maybe I simply rationalize in order to feel good about my decisions. But I hope I am faithful to some rather conservative standards for photo restoration:
- Scan photos at a high resolution and save in TIFF format as a digital master.
- Save any alterations including changing the color, cropping, or applying more sophisticated techniques such as removing stains and creases as JPEGs with unique names.
- Stay true to the original as much as possible. That is, avoid the temptation to Photoshop something in or out that would significantly change the truth (for example, adding a person to a group shot, deleting a cigar from someone’s hand).
- Consider how changes to a photo might change the story.
Please visit the Sepia Saturday “family wall” of bloggers, of whom none have been digitally altered.
© 2015, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.