Picture restoration displayed at archives center

By Curt Yeomans


Donna Rosser once had to solve a dilemma involving a man's missing eye.

It was an old photograph of one of her ancestors. She wanted to restore it, but there was a hole where one eye should have been.

She made a digital copy of the photograph and used a computer program to do the only thing she could think of to solve her problem - she made a copy of his other eye and placed it over the hole.

The technique used by the Fayetteville-based photographer is one of the methods she taught nearly 20 locals about restoring and preserving old photographs Friday during a workshop hosted by the National Archives, Southeast Region, in Morrow.

Rosser has been working in the photography field since 1971. She even has her own web site, thebarefootphotographer.com.

"The most important thing about restoring old photographs is to get them made into a digital file, so they can be preserved," Rosser said. A digital copy can be stored on a computer.

"Eventually, the original photo will no longer exist. Making digital copies of these pictures will allow future generations to be able to enjoy these important pieces of their family history," Rosser stressed.

Once a digital copy is made, she said, it should be saved onto a compact disc, DVD, external hard drive, or jump drive in case the computer crashes.

There are two ways to make a digital copy of a photograph, she said. One method is to place the old photograph in a document scanner and make a copy on a computer hard drive. The other is to set up a tripod with a horizontal extension arm on top, and a camera on the end of the extension arm. The camera should be facing downward. The picture is placed underneath the lens and facing upward.

The camera operator can then zoom in, or out, until the desired image is obtained. Rosser prefers the later method,because some photographs are too big to fit in a scanner.

"All I'm looking for is a way to get a digital copy of the picture," she explained. "The advantage of placing the photograph horizontally on a surface, rather than vertically, is that it's hard to get the picture perfectly vertical. There's going to be some lean to it, which will mess up your lines."

Rosser said the next step involved in the restoration process is to use a photograph editing program, such as Microsoft Digital Image, or Adobe Photoshop, to erase the signs of wear and tear obtained over the years by the original picture.

These programs allow for the lightening, or darkening of a picture, and can create more contrast in the image. They also allow a user to take a photograph that is turning brown and make it black and white.

A portion of a photograph also can be cloned to fill in a similar looking area of the picture which is experiencing some deterioration.

"You can fix wrinkles, remove tears, or erase scratches by using a photo-editing program," Rosser said. "I fill in a lot of cracks using the healing feature [on Photoshop]."

There are ways to do a bad job at restoring a digital version of an old photograph, too, she said.

If a photograph is sharpened too much in the photo-editing program, it can become "noisy," which means the picture has started to look "speckled," Rosser said. The same thing can happen if a person saves a .jpeg image too many times, because some pixels are lost every time the photograph is saved.

Marcia Swanson, a resident of Atlanta, attended the workshop to learn the various ways Rosser restores photographs. Swanson heard about the workshop because she is a member of the Friends of the National Archives.

"I've been working on restoring some photographs myself, but I need to learn a lot more about how to do it," Swanson said.

Mary Evelyn Tomlin, the public programs specialist for the archives, said the workshop was held because archives officials deemed it important to teach people about the process of preserving old photographs.

"A lot of people have boxes and boxes of photographs, but they don't know what to do with them," Tomlin said. "They don't know how to preserve these photographs so they will last longer."

While restoration and preservation were the emphasis of the workshop, the topic of eyes inevitably came up more than once.

Rosser used a Civil War-era photograph of her great-grandfather, she identified as "George," to demonstrate the technique she used to replace the missing eye of her other ancestor. She loaded it into Photoshop and used the "clone" feature to make a copy of his right eye, and then pasted it in the background of the picture.

Later, Rosser opened up the picture of a female ancestor to show how the "heal" feature can be used to remove small scratches on a photo. Every time she clicked on a scratch on the ancestor's dress, though, Rosser got something she didn't want.

Her great-grandfather George's eye kept showing up.