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Restoring mildewed memories

Times Staff Writer

LEBORIA Sager was poking around with a rake on the debris-strewn lot where her home once stood, five long months after Hurricane Katrina reduced it to rubble.

She had unearthed crystal, pieces of her china teacup collection, and her rosary. But Sager had just about given up hope of finding anything else when the rake hit upon something with a spiral-bound spine, caked in muck and partially buried under a wire fence.

Sager realized what it was and screamed: She had found her wedding album.

“I just couldn’t stop crying,” recalled Sager.

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The photos inside were faded, warped and streaked with water lines -- unsalvageable, she figured. But she couldn’t bring herself to throw them away.

She would discover weeks later it was a good thing she didn’t.

As after any natural disaster, the belongings most mourned by Hurricane Katrina survivors were family photos -- irreplaceable moments of celebration, youth and loved ones frozen in time.

This is what struck David Ellis, a photo assignment editor at the Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, Va., as he looked over the Katrina photos taken by his colleague, Rebecca Sell.

Ellis was touched by one particular photo, which showed a New Orleans woman clinging to a damaged studio portrait of herself that she had retrieved from the wreckage of her home.

He began to wonder if news photographers and photo editors like him could help people like her.

Maybe, he thought, they could take digital copies of ruined photos, repair them with image-editing software and then reprint the pictures for their owners -- free of charge.

With the blessing and financial assistance of their newspaper, Sell and Ellis launched Operation Photo Rescue in Pass Christian, Miss., in January 2006, five months after Katrina. They temporarily set up shop in trailers that had become the makeshift home of the public library.

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More than 500 people showed up the week they were there, toting pictures blotched with mildew, devoid of color or with the emulsion washed away. Many were creased, torn and streaked with water.

“Our main goal was not just to restore the photo, but to bring back the memory that the photo evoked,” said Ellis. “Because photos are all about memories. It’s a person’s personal history.”

Ellis, Sell and other photographers they enlisted restored hundreds of photos on the spot on that first outing to Mississippi. Later, as more volunteer photographers began to hear about them and offer their services, Ellis and Sell e-mailed images to them to be repaired.

Three months later, the two photo doctors headed for New Orleans. Within five days, they had copied images for more than 1,000 people, Ellis recalled.

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Even more volunteers began to offer their services until more than 1,100 photographers from around the world were donating their time and skill.

The volunteers select photos from a website gallery of thumbnail images. Using Photoshop, they modify the texture and hue, enhance washed-out details, and copy and transfer pixels to repair damaged spots.

For example, a washed-out section of a blue Navy uniform could be repaired by copying, or “cloning,” the color from an undamaged part of the suit. Intact physical features, such as an eye, could be duplicated to replace a missing or damaged feature.

The volunteers who are photojournalists use the program in a way that most news media do not allow -- altering details. But this is a different mission, and is not for publication.

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Still, all of the photo repairers must follow restoration guidelines posted on the oprworkshop.org site. They are advised not to alter or falsify key information, such as the physical traits, clothing or the background of an image.

“We don’t want the volunteers to make things up,” Ellis said. “If someone is standing on a beach in Hawaii, you can’t replace the background with the Grand Canyon.”

ON a recent weekday, Gloria Gallella, a freelance photographer who lives in Hawthorne, Calif., was working on her third project for Operation Photo Rescue, the photo of a boy from St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans.

“All those spots ... [that] is mold growing,” Gallella said of the photo on her Mac screen of a little boy smiling broadly. “He’s got a lot of water damage.”

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She pointed to the boy’s left cheek, which almost blended into the light beige background. “It’s going to be hard to get this side of his face.”

She created a duplicate layer of the image of the boy, which allowed her to make changes to the copy while preserving the original image in the background. She would ultimately create several layers to work separately on the eyes, mouth, hair, clothes and other mold spots. Eventually, all the layers would be blended or “flattened” into the original image.

Using a digital tablet with a pen that acts as a mouse, Gallella highlighted a tiny spot of neutral color on the photo and used it for the background, allowing the outline of the boy’s image to stand out.

With the tip of her pen, she grabbed a tiny spot of the remaining original color from the boy’s face and began to meticulously cover the mildew specks on his forehead.

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“I want to make sure I don’t get into his hair,” Gallella explained, as the unnatural blemishes began to fade to the boy’s natural skin tone.

Fixing his short hair would be tricky.

“It’s the same color as the mold,” Gallella said. And his hairstyle wasn’t clearly evident. “He could have a buzz.”

After several minutes of scrutiny, a raised section on the right side of the boy’s hair signaled to Gallella that he probably had a part. She also determined that his hair might be more blond than brown.

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Using a technique called “burn” to darken colors on the image and “dodge” to lighten them, Gallella lightened the whites of the boy’s eyes. She also was able to remove dust and scratches, add grain or texture, and sharpen the image.

The boy’s features began to emerge.

“He’s going to be good,” said Gallella. “There’s a lot of mold, but most of his information is here.”

THE information was a little more complicated with Roger Foret’s photograph of his uncle Roger Thezan, a historical shot of a young man dressed in an olive-drab World War I doughboy army uniform and hat, with a medal for marksmanship on his chest.

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The floodwaters that seeped into Foret’s Metairie, La., home had left his uncle’s photograph faded and soaked. It crumbled when he tried to take it out of the frame.

“We were devastated,” said Foret’s wife, Rosalie.

When the photo volunteers came to Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, Foret showed up with his treasured heirloom.

It took about an hour for the photographers to patch the pieces together before they could digitally photograph it, Foret recalled.

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But “they were so enthusiastic about it,” he said; “and I became enthusiastic about their abilities.”

When Foret received the finished photo in May, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“I never expected it to be that good,” he said, his voice rising with excitement.

Ellis, the photo editor, agreed that Foret’s photograph had come out exceptionally well, but he acknowledged that not all images could be perfectly replicated, or even saved at all.

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If distinguishing physical features or other key information is missing, “then there is nothing we can do,” said Ellis.

When 99-year-old Hilda Milano of New Orleans saw the restored 1930s photo of her late husband Joseph, she admits it didn’t look exactly like him. She didn’t care.

“It’s not completely like it was before, but it’s still really nice to have it back,” she said.

LEBORIA Sager read about Operation Photo Rescue in a local newspaper and took her photos to the group when they arrived in Pass Christian. Her collection included several shots from her 1953 wedding, and a picture of her husband, Jim, in his Navy uniform, taken in 1948 -- a photograph that stood framed on their bedroom dresser for years.

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Sager was initially skeptical that the photo doctors could help her, but she was “willing to try anything, because I was losing them anyway.”

On a recent afternoon, she displayed the photos on the kitchen countertop at her temporary home in Diamondhead. The photographers had managed to restore the intricate details of her wedding gown, an off-the-shoulder classic adorned with pearl beads along the neckline and a panel of lace down the front. Sager’s daughter had worn the same dress on her wedding day.

In another photo taken as Sager dressed for her wedding, the photographers could only save the image of Sager’s mother as she looked admiringly over her daughter’s shoulder.

“The whole thing was worth it, just to have my mother’s picture,” Sager said, her eyes welling with tears.

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The photograph of her then-19-year-old husband, which was found streaked and smeared in a neighbor’s yard, was not an exact duplicate of the original.

Still, she said, the photo restorers “captured” his distinctive dark eyes, and that was enough.

Sager figured she lost around $650,000 in household and material belongings after Katrina. Somehow, getting their photos back has given her and her husband the motivation they need to move forward.

“It gave me a lot of hope that things were going to get better,” said Sager.

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“They restored more than just the pictures. They gave you back a bit of your life that you were losing.”

ann.simmons@latimes.com


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