I mention this on the page itself, but I don’t seem to be able to do restoration work on old photographs without darkening them considerably. If you look at my last post, where I worked with a photograph of Dora S. Devol, you’ll see what I mean. If anyone has insight into what I’m probably doing wrong, I’d be much obliged. My father has digitized a large number of old family photos and it would be nice to be able to clean some of them up without losing the fine detail that I find so interesting.
My subjects, if we ignore the oak tree, are both women. Well, a woman and a girl.
I enjoyed finding a whole trove of photos of southern suffragettes in the collection of American Memory. My favorite was really Sue S. White, Chairman of the Tennessee National Woman’s Party, who is wearing a jail door pin. However, I could not figure out what was going on with the background discoloration (was it originally the dark or light streak?) and so I gave up on the photo. My North Carolina woman, Virginia Arnold, is wearing a snazzy pinstripe number, and has the added benefit of representing my native state.
The girl whose photograph I colorized is the same person from my last post here: Isadora Dean Scott Devol. She shows up in census records as Dora, but her name really was Isadora, after her mother. She is my great-great grandmother, grew up in New Orleans, and was a very pretty young girl. Now that I have the hang of colorizing, I may bring new hues to some of my other ancestors.
Lest you think my work this past week for H697 has been entirely intellectual, I have been playing around with some old family photos in Photoshop. I did not scan these: my dad has been very conscientious about scanning family pictures and putting them on flickr for the extended family.
So here is one of the photos I messed around with – a picture of my grandfather’s grandmother (I think), Dora Dean Scott Devol. I cropped out most of damaged border, given that it was just border and not vital to the image.
My edited version has lost some of the detail. Somehow the fabric of her dress doesn’t seem to be as clear in the edited version. Moreover, it all got darker, despite my best intentions. Part of the problem was figuring out how to lighten the background without over-exposing the neck and décolletage. I need to go back through the lynda videos to refresh my thinking. Even watching them in half-hour chunks, I get confused about when to use which tool. Oh, for a book with pictures rather than a video with separate transcript.
Which is to say that most sources are guilty of some sort of subjectivity on the part of the author/creator, whether they are textual or not. Images are not inherently true or more reliable simply because they capture a slice of reality in a different way than words. To extend Geoff’s very apt methaphor of image cropping v. quoting texts from last week: the author of a text and the creator of an image both decide what to take out and what to leave in. Where they crop a sentence or a frame can tell us a great deal about what information they want to convey.
Perhaps I am simply accustomed to interrogating images for historical information. I have long had an interest in medieval Europe, particularly the Northern Renaissance. In high school, I wrote a paper for drama class which outlined proper historical costuming for a production of A Lion In Winter. Clothing (and certain types of material culture) is not always available as artifact, so you have to rely on paintings. Which are frequently religious, so then you have to determine whether what the people in the background are wearing is more or less “contemporary” or is it the artist’s idea of “biblical times”. In other words, you learn to read between the lines of an image.
Which brings me back around to the Inappropriate Alarm Clock. Photographs aren’t necessarily any more true than texts, but neither are they any more false. I appreciate the author of the piece pointing out that the text, which others kept referring to as an accurate description of the contents of the house, was just as flawed and just as reflective of the aims of its creator as the photograph.
One of the things we learn as historians, hopefully early on, is to evaluate sources. The sources we’re taught to evaluate tend to be textual. With such a wealth of non-textual sources available – photographs, prints, cartoons, decorative arts, textiles, clothing – it only makes sense to learn how to extend the critical mind to all possible sources of historical information.
I could try to be profound and raise questions about editing historic photos, whether this makes them less valid as historical documents, etc. However, some of my classmates have spoken much more intelligently on the matter than I think I could just now, so instead I’ll refer you to Lindsay and Sheri’s posts, as well as David and Geoff, who contextualize image editing from a public history/museum standpoint.
My concern after this week’s videos and book about photoshop is, I’m afraid, far more pedestrian. I have long been aware that good editing can improve a photograph. My father, an avid digital and former semi-professional photograph calls this “developing” his pictures, or working in his “darkroom” (aka his iMac’s software). My friend Kelsey has put up photos on flickr which show the variations which can be produced through good editing.
I suspect that there is not a lynda.com video or book out there which can help me figure these things out. Rather, as Claire notes, it takes time and a lot of mucking about until things start to make sense.