As some readers may know, I make most of my meager money from photo restoration. You can learn about my work in this area at my restoration site. My slogan for this work is "bring your memories back to life."
Earlier this week a client brought in an 8-by-40 school panorama shot in 1924. Huge panoramas were common in the early years of the last century. Schools, military regiments, even herds of cows were captured with special cameras that exposed enormous negatives up to 18 inches wide or even larger. The lenses in these specialized cameras were tack sharp, and the result (provided nobody moved causing motion blur) made faces amazingly clear.
My client's print was a school photo, with perhaps a couple of hundred kids in front of their school. The picture had a number of large cracks, some of them running through faces.
In this case, the important faces (to my client) weren't much damaged, so we agreed that to control costs, I'd do a minimal job on facial reconstruction, and deal with all the other problems (fading, missing areas, etc) to a good-as-new standard.
To restore one of these monsters, you have to blow it up close to actual pixel size, work a bit, then zoom out so you don't lose track of where you are in the picture. So I set to work, following the major cracks and repairing first the clothes (pretty easy) and then the faces (far from easy when a crack runs through an eye or a mouth -- see below).
At first, I was only going to go for faces near the "important" ones, and do a rough repair. And then it happened ... as I worked on these kids, their faces large enough and sharp enough to really see, I started to connect with them. Some of these kids were smiling, some were frightened, one is turned away. The older kids are at the rear, and they seem more relaxed, some joking around, some mugging for the camera.
As I worked, the children came to life and took hold of me. As I looked at each face from so long ago, I found myself wondering about the kid's life. Had she gone to college? Had he been killed in the roar of dive bombers on a Normandy beach head? Why was this child grinning, and what made this little girl so fearful? One little boy in the front row looked so sad that I COULD NOT skip his face or just do a quick job. He wound up with an eye transplant and a new jaw line.
The youngest of these kids would be 90 something now, so it's a good bet each of these little ones has passed on, perhaps unremembered by any one. It's an even better bet no other copy of this picture exists. And so it somehow became terribly important to give these damaged and forgotten children some kind of healing, some sort of life in this picture. They needed to look like themselves, as much as I could manage.
I worked to restore each wounded face, partly by thinking about them, partly by connecting with their expressions, partly by giving them this small gesture of appreciation for their youth, their feelings and their lives now ended. The work isn't perfect, but it's good. I hope it's good enough to show these little ghosts that someone cares.
Never before have I been so caught and held by the people in a restoration project. I don't know why it happened this time, except that the photographer somehow got it just exactly right, and the fine lens and film he used make it possible to really see each little face. Or maybe all those little ghosts reached out to me and asked for me to believe in them.
I know I'm not billing the client for all the time on this job. There's no need, because I feel that I'm the one who has been paid in experiencing whatever it is that bound me to these kids and brought them to life for me.
Sometimes it's not about the money.