My family doesn’t have a lot of older photographs. My paternal grandma remedied this from about 1942 onward, but the bulk of earlier thing, are simply not around. “We had some at some point,” my grandma, great aunts, and older cousins used to say. “But Aunt Clara (my great-grandmother’s younger sister) was a pistol. She burned nearly everything of Grandma Masson’s before mother had a chance to go over there and take everything away.”
This is the universe’s way of taunting me, the family genealogist. Lone compiler, researcher, and defender of the past. Sole outreach and communications consultant for everything from DNA to the almighty Ancestry account. But I should have learned this a long time ago. If you start asking questions about the past, you might not always like the answer. And nothing gets my goose quite like the statement: “We had it, but so-and-so burned it.”
My mother taunted me again with the promise of “A whole bunch of Dudek photographs,” which again, are virtually non-resistant. It seems that other side of the family saw Aunt Clara’s bonfire and burned their photos too. Either the universe really doesn’t like me or I’m descended from a long line of pyromaniacs. I’m beginning to think its a little of both.
After buying into the taunt of “Dudek Photographs,” I spent a few hours with my mom back in Michigan, going through a suitcase of photographs from my grandmother’s estate. Through the barrage of family candid shots in all their glorious Kodak color from the 1980s onward, there was surprisingly very little I hadn’t seen. There were a small pile of treasures: notably a better photo of my great-grandmother (Grandma Rhodes) and 3-month old me at a Fourth of July party; my kindergarten-aged father in his baseball uniform; a series of photos of my grandparents and their extended family dressed up for Easter in early 1953; and small rag-paper envelope of sheet film negatives.
In the envelope, I found this:
I have a washed-out photograph of the same couple on my living room mantle! Its my great-great grandmother Grandma Masson and her second husband, Grandpa Masson!
After consulting Maureen Taylor’s Family Photo Detective Book, I deduced was a clear plastic sheet film negative dating from about 1935.
The next question arose: Do I want to send a vintage negative to a photo reprint service and risk losing or having it damaged? How much will reprints cost? Is there any damage to the negative which will result in a bad reprint?
For the sake of shopping around for services, I inquired to the big box grocery and pharmacy stores regarding my negative. For reprints (with no guarantee of return condition), everything would need to be sent via mail to another facility, and the wait for return service was 2-4 weeks.
I went to the folks at Fountaindale Public Library’s Studio 300 for advice. I brought my negative (in a protective envelope), a flash drive, and my rusty Photoshop skills to the lower level of the library.
I met with Joe Petrick, a Studio Services Assistant, and shared my negative and my concerns. I knew Studio 300 had the technology to pull prints off slides. Could the same be done for an older non-roll negative? “No problem!” Joe said with enthusiasm. “Let me set up the scanner!”
Studio 300’s Epson scanner transmits light from both the top and the bottom of the device, allowing for photo slides and negatives to be viewed as a complete image.
The setup for the photo was very quick and easy. Joe connected the scanner directly into the iMac, and used the slide format tray (traditionally used for scanning slides) to center the negative. This step took a bit of negotiation, as the photo first scanned backward, off kilter, and then two low on the photograph. The rule of thumb with the process, Joe advised, was to be patient. The negative was larger than the format tray, and had to be placed by hand under the tray to ensure it was straight. and centered.
In a few minutes, the scanner produced a straight and centered image from the negative:
WOW! This is the only the second image I have of Grandma and Grandpa Masson, and it simply outstanding! I love it! What made the scanning of this photo so successful, was how the photographer was able to snap a focused and balanced shot. I love the details of Gradma Masson’s pinny apron and how her hankie or towel is placed in her pocket, how Grandpa Masson’s vest is buttoned, and a mysterious white pot appears behind them in the bushes near the house.
Where I was lucky with the focus of the photo, the negative was scratched or blurred in some areas. This was a job for Photoshop!
Joe showed me how to use the Healing Stamp or ‘band aid’ tool in Photoshop. This tool gathers portions of the photo which are undamaged to fill in a scratch or tear in the photo. I was able to use this in an area around Grandma Masson’s face, as it seemed to have more than a few obvious scratches. I wanted to eliminate as many of the large scratches as possible, without making the photo seem fake or overdone. It’s a photo from the mid to late 1930s, and so I would expect it to have a bit of ware after 80 years of being in a photo album or in a mantle frame.
In about an hour, I had finished eliminating the scratches on the photo. I saved the finished image at a high resolution, and saved it to my flash drive. With the size I saved, I would be able to print off a poster sized copy of the image, which I may choose to do for a future family reunion.
I love this photo. I absolutely love it. Finding a little treasure like this is the reason I keep calling and writing extended relatives, as well as making new connections with extended kin on Facebook. Because all of a sudden: BAM! Something you never thought existed appears when you least expect it. I see the two people who crossed the ocean from Scotland, who experienced the same loss of a spouse and separation from their families, but created a large and boisterous family together upon their marriage in 1917. I see them now, as my grandmother and father remembered them, in the autumn of their lives surrounded by their family in a home they owned outright.
And this is the best part – I am making a copy for everyone in the family. Don’t worry, I’m going to have each photo placed in a frame and wrap them up nicely. Because I want everyone to see this photo the way I saw it when I opened first opened the photo negative envelope: an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.
So, I still haven’t seen the “Dudek Photographs.” Maybe they’re a myth. Maybe they will become my white whale. Or maybe one of my Facebook connections will come through. Who knows? But for now, I’ve received my Christmas present early, and I will have the ability to share this with my family for years to come.
See you at the Library!