You’d never know it based on my recent posting habits, but believe it or not, I really am interested in things other than space shuttles. No, really! I’m serious… stop laughing! I’m interested in all sorts of things! There’s movies and old cars and pin-up art and Googie architecture and neon signs and toys and travel and animals and historical subjects of all kinds… And I’m positively fascinated by old photographs. I love looking at them, even photos of people I don’t know or have no real connection to. To invoke a cliche’d idea, the images are like windows to the past, and if you stare long enough and hard enough, you start to feel as if you can slip right through them and enter that other time, talk to these long-dead people, and generally experience… some place else.
The problem with old photos is that they’re often in pretty bad condition: dirty, scratched, faded… sometimes, in the case of paper prints, they’ve been creased or stained, or they’re missing pieces. And all that of course makes it difficult to see the very details that are so fascinating. Fortunately, technology has made restoring old photos much easier. Even laypeople with consumer-level equipment can do things with images that would’ve been downright impossible only a few years ago. And if you put a professional on the job, the results can be nothing short of astounding.
Consider, for example, this before-and-after comparison:
The image on the left is a tintype, a photo printed on a thin sheet of metal, dating to the 1870s. The image on the right is the restored version. The restoration brought back so much detail that the photo’s owner can now date it using the wedding ring on her ancestor’s hand — a ring that was virtually invisible in the original, discolored version.
It’s no secret that I am somewhat uncomfortable with many aspects of our modern digital age, and especially with the ease with which movies and photographs can be altered. You can no longer trust that what you’re seeing is what was originally captured, and images no longer have a sense of permanence… although I suppose you could argue they were never permanent anyway, considering what simple time did to that tintype. But in any event, this sort of restoration is one aspect of digital technology that I am completely onboard with. I just hope the owner of that image above kept the original tintype as well; the actual artifact is as important as the image, in my opinion, as much a link with the past. Perhaps moreso, since it is the traveler that’s brought the image down through the years.
Oh, on a somewhat related note (in the sense of old photography), did you hear about the lost Charlie Chaplin film purchased in a UK junk shop last week for the equivalent of about five bucks? The movie is a propaganda piece from 1917 called Zepped — it was apparently intended to calm Londoners’ fears of zeppelin attacks during World War I — and there’s only one other known copy of it. It never fails to astound me when stuff like this turns up in such prosaic settings.You never know what’s out there hiding in people’s attics and garages, and oftentimes, they don’t know either. You can read about the find here, and more about Zepped here.
Attribution where it’s due: I found the tintype restoration story via Boing Boing.