Yesterday's Magazette

3 – Vintage Photographs

Vintage Photographs Meet Technology


By Madonna Dries Christensen

Probably nothing delights genealogists more than photographs. These tangible but silent images are a magic potion that unlocks doors, solves mysteries, and attaches faces to names on lineage charts. Hold an old photo in your hands and feel the surge of energy linking you to the past.

Additional pleasure comes when photographs appear unexpectedly. While I searched in vain for a picture of my brother in his 1950s Navy uniform, to accompany an article, serendipity stepped in. A Facebook contact posted a photo of three high school friends who enlisted together: her uncle, my brother, and my cousin, in uniform.

At about the same time, I found a 1940s wedding photo in a book from my community library. The name on the back of the photo matched someone in our homeowner’s directory, but the photo wasn’t theirs. So I scanned it and e-mailed it to the editor of our newsletter. Shortly after the newsletter came out, a woman called. She said she’d done a double-take when she saw the photo; she hadn’t realized it was missing. She was going to visit her mother that week and would take the photo along and share the lost and found story with her.

After my parents died in the 1950s, I took possession of a few studio portraits dating back a couple of generations, and a 30 year accumulation of black and white snapshots taken by my mother with her Kodak box camera. A stack of negatives allowed others to make copies.

Fast forward a few decades and scanners made it possible to digitalize the collection and put them on a CD to share with several generations. There’s a safety net in sharing copies; should you lose yours, prints can be retrieved.

Photos often become damaged over time, but we now have computer programs that mend cracks, tears, and scratches, clean off soil, ink, water and smoke stains, remove background clutter, and bring forth clearer images. Sepia and black and white can be colorized, or vice versa.

But what about a face that has faded, all but disappeared? Don’t despair. There’s hope for that, too, when talent joins forces with technology.  On an otherwise good copy of my grandparents’ wedding portrait, my grandmother’s face is faded to nothingness. Using other photos of her as a guide, artist Jeff Owenby recreated her features to a degree that satisfied me.

I keep the original copy and the restored together, along with an explanation of what was done and when. Years from now, researchers will know what both members of this wedding party looked like.

Photo manipulation is frequently used to create humor, or scenes that seem to prove that celebrities who’ve never met had an intimate tete-a-tete somewhere. And we all know those people on magazine covers do not actually have perfect bodies, hair, and skin. But in the right hands, for legitimate reasons, editing tools are as miraculous as were those first images that emerged on glass plate negatives.

Jeff Owenby says, “I recall in the seventies-nineties having to hand airbrush, pencil, and tint photos. It was grueling work and generally provided nothing more than an acceptable product. However, the true star is the photo itself, and nothing added, enhanced, or changed will ever be as important.”

Personal photographs are your memory keepers. Don’t let the memories become clouded or disappear altogether. See samples of Owenby’s restoration at Contact him there for suggestions on what can be done and prices.

Your family will be grateful.

Vol. 40 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – 2013


1 Comment »

  1. From glass plate negatives to CD’s, spanning decades, the author weaves a compelling historical article connecting generations of people with evolving photograph restoration and preservation techniques. Well written, Informative and enjoyable read.

    Comment by Colette Sasina — January 8, 2013 @ 8:09 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: