Bringing old pictures back to life
Much as I enjoy taking my own pictures, I’ve also come to love working on old ones. I spent a lot of time working with Derek on his second book, A Nazi in the Family.
We’ve had access to hundreds of his family images, some of which have turned out to be of some historic importance. There are rare photos of life in Nazi Germany, and it’s unusual to find candid images of an SS family – we’ve got lots. It’s fascinating, and a huge privilege to work with them, but it’s been a pretty steep learning curve – and I’m not at the top by a long way yet.
The story of the restoration of these images
The pictures I take myself are composed of pixels. Derek’s family archive is of paper and emulsion, and it’s feeling its age. Most of the images have had a long and dramatic life of their own, and they are chipped, scratched and faded.
In a dedicated metal cabinet at my side, hundreds of these old photos are carefully stored in conservation-grade boxes and bags. In a small freezer, 110 fragile old negatives, similarly cocooned, are now as safe from degradation as I can make them. And I must leave them all undisturbed as much as possible, for the sake of their future.
To allow us to study the images and to share them through Derek’s book about his family, I’ve had to turn those images into pixels.
From paper to pixel
This is a skilled task in itself, it’s fiddly and technical and I’m no expert. I’ve scanned the images where I can but if that doesn’t produce a good enough result, an alternative is to take a photograph of them. As you can imagine, the originals must be handled with great care.
Now comes the long but exciting bit. I use Photoshop to digitally repair them, and it’s very effective – like a big electronic toolbox.
The aim is to restore the tone and clean up any scratches and spots without affecting the ‘truth’.
Nothing must be added or taken out that will change what you see in the image, and that means no cropping, except perhaps to neaten the edges. It’s a joy to see the old pictures gradually come back to life. It’s not possible to restore every one as new, but it’s usually possible to make them look better.
Below are some of the pictures, before and after restoration – click the arrows to see them all, and compare ‘before’ and ‘after’ (all images copyright Niemann family).
Looking through the window
When you look at a photograph, you’re looking through a window in time. You’re seeing what the photographer saw in that split second, however long ago it was.
The camera never lies, they say. Well, it’s sort of true. We can use the pictures to check and corroborate the things we’ve heard or read; for example, the uniforms expert at the Imperial War Museum very kindly looked over relevant pictures and confirmed who was wearing which uniform, and that was a great help.
Studying the images has allowed us to get to know the family in quite an intimate way – we see them in formal moments and when they are simply relaxing together. The pictures tell the story in those moments that the family chose to keep as photographs, so they must have mattered to them.
These fragile bits of paper and emulsion give us an invaluable and endlessly fascinating window into a time of such huge importance to the world.
Repairing and conserving the actual photograph, negative or film is a specialist job, and requires the services of a skilled conservator. In the UK, you can contact the Institute for Conservation (ICON), at www.icon.org.uk.
Books that I’ve found really helpful, and which have taught me so much, are:
Adobe Photoshop Restoration & Retouching ( now in a fourth edition, 2019). Katrin Eismann et al. New Riders.
Digital Restoration from Start to Finish. Ctein. Focal Press, 2010.
A Guide to the Preventive Conservation of Photograph Collections. Bertrand Lavadrine. Getty Publications, 2003.
If you’re interested in historic photos, you might find the booklet Care of photographs useful. It’s intended for museums, but gives helpful advice to the general reader. www.ica.org/sites/default/files/WG_2003_PAAG-care-of-photographs_EN.pdf
In 2014 I attended an excellent course on care of historic photos at West Dean College, near Chichester, W Sussex, with Conservator Susie Clark. www.westdean.org.uk/
For conservation materials, you could try www.conservation-resources.co.uk