Bringing back the past
A side arm of my work as an artist and illustrator is the restoration of old photographs, which you can read more about here. Returning an image to its former glory, stripping back layers of damage and repairing missing part of the photo is a really rewarding process, but sometimes I get asked to look at something that is a much bigger challenge than it first appears.
I received this photograph from a client who said that it was a picture of her mother and had been up on her wall for years and was now so faint you could hardly see it. On initial inspection it appeared to be a simple case of a monochrome image fading from light exposure. A simple investigation should reveal whether enough information was left in the photograph to be able to revive the image beneath.
Carefully removing the photograph from the frame, the age of the piece seemed to fit with my initial assessment, but there also seemed to be some unusual textures on the image surface.
After teasing away the glass and mount, the true level of damage became apparent. The photograph was originally in colour, printed on standard commercial kodak paper. When colour photographs are faded to this extent they are incredibly difficult (and usually cost-prohibitive) to restore because the different colour ranges fade at different rates, so that the information needed to identify and separate the original colours simply isn’t there.
Still, not one to shrink from a challenge, I scanned the photograph at a very high resolution to see how bad the damage was. Colour photos that have faded, even to this degree can be sometimes be restored to a good quality monochrome print.
Unfortunately, faded tones and a loss of colour were not the only issues to be reckoned with. The heat generated by direct sunlight over the years had caused the surface of the image to ripple and shrink, creating a network of of thin, raised lines. The heat and pressure of the glass had also caused some areas of the image to stick to the glass surface, removing them entirely.
With slow degrees of manipulation, dodging and burning areas of the image to recover as much tonal information as possible, it became clear that there simply wasn’t enough detail in the photograph to create a good quality restoration.
However, I am not just a restorer of photographs. This bleached and scarred image is clear enough to provide the woman’s likeness, relative tonal values and a composition. As an artist, that is enough for me to start a painting.
Portraiture is a delicate art, especially when you have only one (damaged) reference to work from, but I am happy to say that the client and her family were delighted at the resulting painted replacement for a much a cherished photograph.