A while back, a young man contacted me about a photo digitization and restoration project for his grandfather, who served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. They had some photographs from this period in his life—of friends, scenery, and the culture of Vietnam—that they wanted to use for an album.
When I get any commissions of this nature, I focus on the need of the customer and the sentiment they have for their photographs. Pictures help us connect to our memories and remind us of everything we have been through.
In this case, I digitized a few dozen photographs and restored eight, five of which were a series of Polaroids. It is pretty rare to work on a series of photos from the same time and place. What had happened was that they had been stacked upon one another, the photo print lab stamp bled, and the photos got stuck together. When they were separated, ink and fuzzy white paper remnants were left on the images.
When things like this happen, it is often due to moisture or fluctuating storage temperatures which can cause the photo emulsion to become tacky. The residue obstructed most of the information on the pictures, and although a water bath could have possibly removed some of the problem, I don’t work on the original; I go straight into the digital realm. So the process began.
Sharing the Information
Typically, when I first get the files to work on, I turn them all around and upside down to look at the texture of the undamaged parts of the original photo. This allows me to connect to the photograph’s qualities; its texture, colors, patterns, etc., and I have to lean into that to fulfill the restoration. My primary goal is to have the restored final image match the original’s texture, light, and tone as close as possible.
The material these pictures offered was so minimal in some areas that it was hard to utilize. When this happens, I must create new information or fill in empty spaces by copying from other parts of the photograph. I start by sharing information between the photos, and I use the surroundings and whatever other clear details I can find to fill in the negative space.
It’s like a puzzle, and you just have to find or create the piece that matches the area you are working on. I have to make it fit naturally in the photograph. To achieve this, I create a multitude of layers to clone or copy what is visible in the image and then blend it all carefully so as not to reveal any obvious repetition of texture. Because the original photos had an inherent softness of focus, they lent themselves well to the blending of grass and ground in this series.
Handling the information that is there, not obstructed by scratches or, in this case, by paper and stamp, is a very meticulous process. I have adapted my experience and skillset from my fine art background, which allows me to give the pictures depth, accuracy, and a sense of realism. For example, to recreate some of the landscapes, I had to paint them digitally.
The risk with this type of restoration is that it can look airbrushed, but I work carefully to avoid this effect. In this series, some of the landscapes and the water required precise painting to match the surroundings and to fit in with the original and cloned textures.
From Restoration to Recreation
Once I had shared all the information I could between the photographs, some elements were still missing in a couple of pictures. For example, the outfits of two soldiers in the foreground and a man’s arm had to be recreated entirely.
For this part, I dove into the Internet to do research, and I looked for large image samples or archived photos from that time and place, with that particular military attire and an arm at a similar angle. I was surprised at how challenging it was to find images that accurately depicted what I needed despite photographs from Vietnam being pretty common.
Once I did, I worked them into place, altering the tone, texture, brightness, placement, shadow, etc., for them to feel as natural as possible. The most difficult part of using reference imagery is making it fit the vintage or antique feel. It is quite hard to make a crisp picture from 2021 look like it belongs to another decade. It calls for a combination of intuitive replication and blending techniques, and a precise understanding of the structure, anatomy, and light and dark.
Overall, each photo of this series took a couple of hours, and the whole process required a lot of patience. I had to take regular day-long breaks to let my eyes and brain step away from the images to see more clearly what needed more work. To be honest, I could keep toying with each picture for months on end because there will always be one more little detail to change, so I have to stop myself at the quoted time or when I feel pleased with my work.
Eventually, when I gave the new, restored files to the customer, the family was delighted and amazed at how well they turned out. It is always a lovely feeling when the customer is actually surprised. Whenever I’m in the tedium of doing the most intricate work, I try to go back to that feeling. It is not something I take for granted, and it makes me happy to know that people appreciate my work. It truly is an honor to provide this service.
About the author: Jenn Cohen is a photo restoration and colorization specialist, photo and fine art printer, and digital archivist based in Bellingham, Washington. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Cohen is the founder of Facsimile, a photo restoration service that breathes new life into family histories. You can find more of Cohen’s work on Instagram.