On the surface, Robert Krips has an impossible job. What fury Mother Nature has wrought, what human passion has destroyed, what your cat has eaten, he has to fix.
Basically, Krips is in the memory-restoration business. Or, if that doesn't work, he changes the memory. Such is the luxury of someone who repairs and restores photographs for a living.
Krips started his current business, The Photo Fixers, in 1977 in a small photo lab in Huntington Beach, working as a wholesale supplier to the photographic trade, providing his service through established retail outlets.
"We saw that the retail people were not going to pick this up and run with it," Krips says. "It (photo restoration) was too complex."
So, in late 1980, he moved his business to Costa Mesa, where he is still located.
Krips, 44, started his first business a year after moving to Huntington Beach from San Bernardino. He was 10 and got involved in "collecting bottles on the beach and finding a way to get the sand off. . . . They were worth one penny with sand and two pennies without."
He first ventured into photography at Huntington Beach High School, where his science teacher was a buff and even had a darkroom at the school.
"At that time, I was interested in what goes on behind the camera," he says. "Everything was new. Everything was a discovery."
His hobby soon became a career, and he took a job as a lab technician for a commercial photographer in Costa Mesa for $1.50 an hour. He went on to become a staff photographer for the Rossmoor Corp. at Leisure World and then struck out on his own, opening a commercial photography business.
"Then one day, I went to a workshop at a color lab in San Diego," Krips says. "One of the presentations was on photographic restoration. . . . I watched and listened." Within a few days Photo Fixers was born.
Krips calls himself a conservationist, protecting photographs from injury, harm or decay. The process is bringing an old or marred photograph to a condition that is "acid free and wholesome and fresh. Restoring a photograph can sometimes be as simple as making a copy of a photo, or it can be very complex. It just depends on how much damage was done to the photo.
"The most common things I do are pictures of mom and dad, pictures of the customer, pictures of the family, the grandparents, the old house, the farm . . . that kind of thing," he says.
"I would say that 40% of what we do is restoration, and 60% is straight copying. The wallet pictures are probably the most difficult. Pictures that women had are generally OK, but men's are terrible. Men put their wallets in their back pockets, and the pictures bend and just get out of shape. . . . Men don't realize that the heat and bending will turn that picture into something that looks like a fresco."
Other problems include the acid from wood frames, general deterioration and silverfish, the wingless insects with silvery scales that thrive in darkness, which "eat the paper backing and leave a hole in the picture," he says. "Mildew will do the same thing--just eat the image."
Photos also fade, and cats have a penchant for damaging them, but perhaps the most unpredictable problems deal with human emotion.
"In a divorce, the people will oftentimes just tear one party out of the picture," Krips said. "Then there is a piece missing, and I have to fix it.
"Then, there was a person who wanted to have a picture restored for his parents' 50th wedding anniversary, but it quickly turned into a case of sibling rivalry. So one brother told me to 'Take my brother out of the photo.' We took him out and moved other objects in the picture to where he had been."
Another troublesome restoration he had was for a person who wanted a picture of his grandmother but had only a snapshot of a room in which a small picture of the grandmother was hanging on the wall. With that snapshot, Krips came up with a picture of the grandmother.
Krips also speaks with pride of restorations he did of 8 X 10 photographic plates by H.G. Peabody, a photographer in the early 1900s who shot some of the first pictures of the Grand Canyon.
"Someone from the National Parks Service brought them to me," Krips says. "I duplicated 25 glass plates onto 4 X 5 film to exacting quality. I could only do one plate a day."
The most basic restoration process is retouching, using pencils, sprays and oil. If these methods don't work, the next step would be airbrushing. The more complex repair work that needs airbrushing goes through four generations--a copy negative, a work print, another copy negative and the final print.
"Backgrounds are the easiest to restore," Krips says. "Then comes clothing and then faces. Plaid suits are a bear."
But the "hardest things to conceptualize and create are hands, so we try and stay away from them," Krips says. "We vignette or fade it out. I'll do a face, but I won't do hands. There is nothing as awkward or different in humans."
Faces can also prove to be troublesome.
"When there is a distinguishable feature of the face missing, it gets difficult," Krips says. "It's impossible if it's the only picture I have to work with. I can't create something where nothing exists."
As a general rule, anything that is dark on the print is retouched on the negative. Anything light on the print is repaired with dyes, usually applied with a double- or triple-O brush.
As you would expect, the cost of restoration depends on the difficulty of the work. It can be as inexpensive as $30 for a 4 X 5 copy negative and print involving light negative retouching, filtering and contrast changes.
The average repair job, however, runs from $75 to $100 and would entail repairing a crack or tear on the photo. Even those prices would depend on whether the damage is in the face, the clothing or background.
"The best restorations," Krips says, "are those that reveal the least amount of altering and change."
At The Photo Fixers, the adage, "The more things change, the more they remain the same" is a way of life.
The photography column, which runs Saturdays in Orange County Life, is designed to help both the serious amateur and weekend shooter. Questions and ideas are both welcome and encouraged by: Robert Lachman, Chief Photographer, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa 92626.