Scanning old photos always brings a cry of despair from my lips. My mother and those before her, had a propensity to write on the face of photos. I’m happy to have the names and places, but oh how I wish they would have written on the back of them in pencil rather than with the acid-rich ink they seemed to all use.
The images are permanently defaced. Hours and hours of work with Photoshop helps in some cases, but in most situations, the old grainy small black and white or brown images were too small to allow a decent clean up on a digital copy.
I’ve entertained the offers of professionals, graphic arts students and others who profess an intimate relationship with Photoshop and other graphics programs, but alas, their results are little different than my own efforts. In fact, none of them can or will spend the tens of hours that I do in the effort nor could I afford to pay them to do so to make the images ‘perfect’ again.
Years ago, I found the photo album of a cousin in a box tucked away at the back of the top shelf in a closet at a historical society in California. I was absolutely delighted to find it. The odds were beyond random chance.
Apparently, when my cousin died in the early 1900’s, her precious photos were given to her step children who had no interest in them. The photos survived until the early 1980’s somehow, passing from one person to another, until they were rescued from the garbage by a sharp-eyed volunteer at the historical society who slammed on her brakes, jumped out of her vehicle in traffic and plucked the old album from the top of a garbage can.
The photos in the book included the old family home in Plymouth, Massachusetts, its rooms, contents and inhabitants. No living member of the family had ever seen them or had been to the home. The images were of my ancestral family and homestead! Additionally, the images showed photos of old family homes in California and events in the lives of the family. I didn’t recognize the faces of most of the folks in the images and wondered who they were …
Unfortunately, my cousin wrote the names on the rice paper pages of the album. Eighty years later, the pages now contained fine paper-free engravings where the ink used to reside. Sometimes the script outline was legible, sometimes it could be read when projecting a light source thorough it and studying the surviving image as it stuck black paper, but frequently, the holes surround the missing text looked like survivors of a young man’s work with a magnifying glass on a sunny day.
The photo identities were sorely missed, but the old photos were relatively intact and greatly appreciated.
Even with the old ink, smears, acid etching and crumbling layers, the photos are a precious, highly treasured part of our family history records.
In our generation, let’s do a better job of passing quality images on to our descendants. Don’t forget to embed the names and locations in you photos in the EXIF and Comments of our digital images. Don’t write on hard copy images. Store them in archival storage sleeves and boxes in a cool dark environment, and for your digital images, backup, backup and backup your files in numerous locations on archival quality disks in .TIFF or a subsequently newer universally accepted archival digital format.
For more information about preserving digital copies of your photos, read Gary Wright's excellent "Preserving Your Family History Records Digitally" white paper.