At first glance, one might question how photography and genealogy are linked. The reality is, however, that a big part of genealogy and historical research is simply basic detective work.
To do a complete study of an ancestor’s past, a genealogist or family historian needs to put on their detective’s hat, turn over every stone and investigate every clue at their disposal. And old photographs just happen to provide a wealth of such clues — clues about what our ancestors looked like, where and how they lived, possibly what kind of job they had, what their likely economic status was, and what their hobbies were. Group photos, in particular, are also very helpful in solving mysteries about family relationships and other missing links.
So yes, collecting and studying old family photographs has become both an accepted and expected part of modern genealogy. This reality aside, however, what can be said about the growing trend of photo restoration?
Photo Restoration Defined
In the context of historical photos, “photo restoration” in the strictest sense, is defined as the practice of using tools to repair a photo to what one assumes was its original appearance. Typically, this includes repairing the evidence of tears, removing scratches or cracks, correcting fading or color damage caused by sunlight or other environmental factors, and removing stains, mold, or other damage that was not present when the photo was originally created.
In the past, such restoration efforts required a trained professional who used the likes of air brushes, natural hair brushes, erasers, charcoal, various pencils, paints and knives to work their magic. In today’s digital era, such photo restoration can be accomplished by anyone with a computer, a scanner, photo editing software (such as Adobe Photoshop) and a little patience.
Of course, as with anything, some individuals are more skilled than others at using such tools. This, and the fact that one person’s assumption of what the original photo looked like might not be the same as someone else’s, is what creates some of the controversy over what is commonly referred to as the “ethics” of photo restoration.
Differing Opinions Amongst Historians and Genealogists
There are some historians and genealogists who believe that ANY alteration of an original image is unethical — even if such alteration is simply repairing damage caused by time, the elements or neglect. Such purists believe that any damage to the original image simply explains the historical “journey” that the photo experienced over the years and should be preserved as the character of the image in its current form. They also question the judgement or ability of the restorer in being able to actually restore the image to its original form (as opposed to perhaps mistakenly altering some piece of the image that was historically relevant).
In contrast to the opinion of such purists, there are other historians and genealogists who actively support the practice of photo restoration. At the heart of their support is a desire to honor their ancestors by returning their photos to an unstained, untorn, non-discolored state and sharing such repaired images with as many family members as possible. Backing up their thinking on this are the efforts of art conservationists who have painstakingly restored the works of such masters as Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinchi and Raphael. A family historian of this thinking could argue that, if the Vatican thought it appropriate to restore the painted walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the benefit and enjoyment of generations to come, then families deserve no less.
My Personal Opinion
Personally, I lean more to the camp of those who support and encourage photo restoration. After all, my entire approach to family history is from the perspective of discovering and preserving a family’s legacy for years to come — an approach that entails uncovering the story of our ancestors by piecing together the many details of their lives with both nuance and emotion. When looking at historical photos, I want to be able to see the details of my ancestors’ faces, the details of the clothes they were wearing and the details of the homes they lived in, without the distraction of scratches, torn edges and discoloration. More importantly, I want future generations to be able to see them in a similar manner, to understand them and to enjoy them as well.
All this said, I do have concern with a growing trend amongst some family genealogists to go beyond simply restoring a photograph and instead manipulating and changing the image to suit their whims. Personally, I don’t see it as productive to embellish historical photos with fancy borders and graphics. Worse yet, I find it troubling when some use Photoshop to remove certain individuals from a photo altogether or to add individuals who weren’t present when the original photo was taken. (I have encountered, for example, photos of families where sons or brothers who were away at war or who, in some cases had even died, were digitally “pasted” into family group photos as if they were present when the photo was taken. I see this as very problematic to a future historian who might not be aware that the photo was altered.)
In my opinion, sensitivity to how a photo appeared in its original form is critically important. Repairing tears, scratches, cracks, fading, discoloration, stains, mold or other damage that occurred over time is not inconsistent with historical principles of preservation. But such repairs should be conducted in a conservative manner; and copies of original photos (damage and wear included) should be made available to family members who request them.
An example of a simple, conservative photo restoration. (The contrast and tone were balanced; scratches and other surface damage were corrected; shadows were reduced and the overall image was sharpened.) While the final product is not “perfect”, the goal was for modifications to be as minimal as possible, while also allowing for faces to be brightened and the detail of the image more readily visible.) [Appearing fourth from the left is my grandfather, Joseph Heuisler Tormey, Sr., with his parents and siblings. The photo was taken in the spring of 1917, just prior to my grandfather leaving for France during World War I.]
Consider Adopting a Photo Restoration Protocol
With an eye towards conservative principles, I encourage genealogists and family historians to adopt a photo restoration protocol and to be consistent in following it.
Following is an suggested plan:
1) With the mindset of a preservationist or a museum curator, take steps to secure and preserve original family photographs in an archival-safe, acid-free environment. (There are numerous storage containers on the market developed for exactly this purpose.)
2) Consistent with the approach of such a preservationist, adopt a policy of not manipulating or altering historical photographs in a manner that goes beyond repairing damage. (i.e., Avoid the temptation to embellish or add something that wasn’t in the original photo.)
3) When scanning photos, save original scans in a master file (preferably in a non-degraded TIFF-type format and at as high a resolution as is reasonable, given the limitations of the scanning hardware you are using) Preserve such original scans as your digital masters and be careful not to save altered versions over them. (i.e., When using photo editing software to make repairs to a damaged photo, save such changes as a separate file, rather than overwriting your original scan.)
4) Don’t forget in your preservation efforts to be diligent about identifying the subject of each photo. (Who is pictured in the photo? Where was the photo taken? What was the date, or estimated date, of the photo?) Catalogue and mark the back of original photos with such facts using an acid-free medium, such as a soft, light-colored pencil; and clearly name electronic files with as much identifying detail as possible.
Like it or not, photo restoration efforts are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the world of genealogy. My advice to genealogists and family historians is to embrace the benefits made available with modern photo editing software, but to do so conservatively and in a manner that doesn’t detract from the legacy that your ancestors would want you to inherit and pass on to your own descendants.
Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “The Debate Over the Ethics of Photo Restoration”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog’”, posted May 1, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).