How Photo Conservation and Digital Restoration Reawakened a Family's History

For most people, the top drawers of their bedroom dressers are reserved for mismatched socks, so it was a delightful surprise for Rick Eisenstein to find a 97-year-old photograph rolled up in his father's old dresser drawer. "When he was in the hospital, I was looking for some clothes to take to him and came across this rolled up picture," Rick explained. "His parents were very important to him--with that being said, he was not a very sentimental person and kept very few things from his younger days." This photograph, however was special: his father kept it for nearly 60 years. Rick made a decision to bring the picture to The Conservation Center for examination and conservation.

The photograph shows officers from the Army Reserve Corps for World War I. Rick’s grandfather became a first lieutenant in the Dental Section of the Medical Department of the Army Reserve Corps, registering for the draft just one year before his graduation from Saint Louis University Dental School in June of 1918. The photograph was taken at Camp Pike near Little Rock, Arkansas during their training. Rick’s grandfather is labeled as number 13, sitting towards the middle of the top row.

Sadly with this 9.5” x 36” sepia photograph, unrolling it was no simple task. Before bringing it to The Center, Mr. Eisenstein wasn’t even able to see his grandfather in the picture. Once our conservator was able to unroll the photograph using passive methods for assessment, it was clear that it was in poor condition. After being confined in a drawer for so long, the embrittled photo exhibited severe distortion. Discoloration, tears, and losses were found throughout the work, along with a layer of particulate film on the surface. Our photography conservator set to work, stabilizing tears and creases on verso with appropriate weight paper and adhesive as to prevent the piece from being further compromised. In spots where the fibers of the photograph substrate were exposed, conservation adhesives were used to consolidate the area and bring the photograph to a more integrated state. Using passive humidity application techniques, our conservator flattened the surface deformations before mounting it to a sympathetically toned, solid mount to provide support and structure to the damaged work.

A service often coupled with photography conservation is our digital restoration service, that way an image can be retouched and reproduced allowing the owner to have multiple copies. Rick wanted to share this image of his grandfather with the rest of the family, so The Center's digital restorer was asked to help with this project. This process begins with high-resolution digital scans, and then our restorer digitally retouches areas of loss and discoloration. This new version of the photograph can then be enhanced or altered to a client’s wishes, and reproduced in any shape, size, or number. After retouching, the writing on the lower half of the photograph was enhanced, increasing its legibility and allowing Rick to learn more about his grandfather and his history.

“I had The Conservation Center help me with other projects about four years ago,” Rick shared. “I remembered the wonderful job you did so I decided to bring this precious family photograph to The Center as well." And now with his grandfather’s photograph back in his possession, Rick's previous sentiment is echoed. “I am amazed with how you brought this old picture back to life. This will be shared with the rest of my family, including my father's 11 grandchildren and their children."