FURNISHINGS : Old Family Photos Create Positive Image


They arrive in shoe boxes, tucked inside paper bags and old photo albums. Sometimes they are cracked in half or curling at the edges. They may be faded or stained, but they are treasures to their owners.

"We've always had a steady flow of customers who want old family photos restored," said Ralph Naill, owner of Family Tree Photographers in Tustin, a studio that specializes in restoring and copying old photographs.

"For a while, it seemed like it was out of vogue to have rooms filled with family photos. Some people seemed to believe it was just 'cluttering up' a room, but that attitude has been changing. Today, portraits and the older photos are given more prominence in decorating."

Huntington Beach-based interior designer Elaine Hankin agrees: "Whenever I'm working on a home, I like access to all the shelves, cupboards, every nook and cranny. That's where I often find older family portraits. If I can find them, I'll use them.

"There's no sense for these photos to be stuck in boxes on a shelf somewhere. They need to be out and displayed. It provides a sense of continuity to a family, and it's one of the most interesting arrangements you can design."

Of the photographs that are brought to Naill to restore, the "overwhelming favorites" are family-related. Yet, there are some unusual requests.

"There have been instances when we're asked to paint someone out of a picture," he said. "I guess the individual in question may have been the black sheep of the family."

Some of the most common damages sustained by these old photographs are cracks and tears. In some cases, brittle ones have actually snapped in half.

"We see a lot of photos that have been backed by hardboard--a technique that was very popular a few generations ago," Naill said. "Unfortunately, the backing gets brittle, causing the photos to snap, break or chip."

Other problems include deterioration of the paper, fading images (because of oxidation and exposure to light) and scratches.

"With some of the old tintypes, you can actually see the silver shining through where oxidation has occurred," Naill said. "If the photo was under glass, it may be somewhat protected, however, we also receive a number of photos where the glass has broken and scratched the image."

Can all damaged photographs be repaired?

For the most part, yes. While photographic prints that are broken may not be literally pasted back together, they can be placed together, like a puzzle, and then a photograph is taken of the damaged original.

"Once we have the duplicate, the artist can do very detailed fine work," Naill said. "Depending on the condition of the photo, the artist has a variety of techniques to enhance the image--whether it's pencil work, airbrushing, or applying dyes."

Once the cosmetic work is complete, a negative is made and any number of prints can be produced. Some prefer the prints in the sepia-toned colors of the originals, while others want black and white or colorized prints.

If you have original prints, Naill recommends hanging them in darker areas of the home.

"Daylight is a photo's worst enemy," he said. "If you want to light them, use artificial light. Also, be aware that color photos tend to fade faster than black and white, so arrange your photos accordingly."

Some fading may also be attributed to the original processor.

"Many times we're able to trace problems with fading back to the care that was taken by the developer," Naill said. "It depends on the chemicals they used and whether or not the print was washed thoroughly. Of course, there's not much that can be done about that now, but it does explain why some photos tend to fade faster than others."

Care of older photographs should also extend to the framing.

Jim Thacker of Village Art Center in Fullerton specializes in using museum conservation techniques for framing older family photographs and limited-edition prints.

"There are special 100% rag or cotton fiber mat boards that should be used with older photos," Thacker said. "What you want to look for is a non-acid, non-alkaline mat since these will not burn and discolor old prints the way other mat boards do."

Up until the last decade, according to Thacker, most framers weren't aware of museum archival framing standards. As a result, yellow or brown stains appeared on artwork where the photo came in contact with the mat board or frame.

"Up until the last five or 10 years, most framers used wood pulp paper products," Thacker said. "Or they used ready-made chip board and corrugated cardboard. Anything made from a wood product will tend to 'burn' art pieces over time. So if you have a valuable piece, it makes sense to use the museum conservation techniques to enhance its longevity and appearance."

Thacker also recommends reframing prized pieces about every three to five years.

"A frame doesn't seal against the air," he said. "After a period of time, dust and pollution still get under the glass and, over time, can damage the piece. For this reason, it makes sense to take the photo out, clean it and restore or reframe the piece. If it's a particularly bright area of your home, you may wish to move it to a darker area periodically so it doesn't fade so quickly."

Thacker recommends, at the very least, an archival backing to protect the photo.

"There are essentially two sets of standards for framing," he said. "One is using wood pulp paper, and this is usually reserved for posters or reproduction prints that generally are not as valuable. For finer pieces of art or older family photos, you need the rag mat or a product that has been buffered to stay neutral so as not to damage the piece."

Mats and backing that have been buffered have had a substance called lignin removed. According to Thacker, the lignin is what causes the burning.

Framing sizes have changed over the years as well. Forty years ago, a common photo size was 6 by 8 inches, rather than the 5-by-7 or 8-by-10 dimensions commonly used today.

Yet according to designer Hankin, mixing photographs from different eras and in different sizes can add interest.

"I often take the older photos and place them in nice Victorian-style frames that set them off very nicely," he said.

"Spend a little more to get an excellent quality frame. It will make a great difference in enhancing the appearance of the photo. I have reframed some photos for my clients, and they are amazed at the difference. You don't have to use the exact same frame for all photos in one area, but they should be of high quality."

Depending on the amount of damage to the photo, restoration itself often takes up to a month, with an additional seven to 10 days needed to print the copies. Likewise, prices depend on how much time and work must go into the restoring prices.

What can increase costs are photographs that are broken or faded, and those requiring manipulations of the original; either removing someone from an original photo or, perhaps, joining two separate photographs. Buyers should also be cautious when enlarging a relatively small piece.

"With some of the early photos, the focus isn't as good and, of course, when that's enlarged, the image will become softer," Naill said. "That doesn't bother some people, but it is something to consider when determining the size of a reproduction."

On average, restorations cost around $250, with most of the expense applied to work that must be finished by hand. Copies average $15 to $20 a print.

Yet, Naill says, to most families their true value can't be measured.

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