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Restoring an Impossible 100 year old Photo

Updated: Jun 5, 2018

It began with my first glimpse of the image. It was a wreck. Not only was it faded beyond recognition in many places, there were large pieces of the face missing. The edges were seriously frayed. Numerous stains obscured the artwork surrounding the portrait. But underneath the accumulated damage I could see the image of a young soldier who had served our country in some long-ago war.

“Can you restore this?”, she asked. I looked at the back of the image and saw that it had been glued to a piece of cardboard, but because of the deterioration, parts of the backing were literally held together with band-aids.

It was obviously important to the family so I said I would give it a go. “Who is this in the image?”, I asked. “We don’t really know. We don’t even know how old it is.”

Challenge accepted.

First thing was to produce a high resolution scan of the image. By increasing the contrast and changing the colors I was able to pick out elements of the artwork that had been hand-painted on the image. I also learned that this style of portrait was common in the 1920's and 30's. This particular piece had been sold to the family by the Chicago Portrait Company in 1924. Traveling salesmen would take portraits of family loved ones back to their studios and there artists would hand-color the faces. In this case they also added artwork to the image.

Now to establish the date of the original photograph. That was a nice bit of sleuthing. The uniform suggested late 1890 through the 1930’s. The crossed rifles were indicative of a soldier serving in the US Army Infantry. That style of Infantry insignia was used from 1910 to the 1924 so that meant the mystery soldier was likely from World War 1.

After consulting with the client about her family ancestry she told me she happened to have a family portrait of the family from that era. Soon I was staring at a family of 11. I was certain that one of the boys in the picture was my man in the portrait.

I began to pour over images from genealogy websites and soon had the names, birth and death dates of everyone in the family portrait. From there I came across a site that features pictures of grave tombstones and found that two of the boys in the family portrait had served in World War 1 (according to the tombstone inscription).

The plot thickened.

Meanwhile, back at the image, I had begun to reconstruct the artwork in the image by using multiple layers over the original scan. Using the scan as a template I hand-painted the artwork, restoring it to its original state. Adjustment layers created the shadows and highlights of the flags, rifles and laurel leaves. This non-destructive approached allowed me to modify my shadow and highlights as much as I needed.

Now, which of the two boys was the actual soldier in the portrait?

My tired eyes were becoming quite subjective so I called in the expert – my wife. She compared the face in the portrait (what was left of it) to the faces of the two boys in the portrait. She picked the same person as I had. I took the images to two portrait photographers and they instantly chose the same person. I had my man.

Now my job became much like a forensic anthropologist reconstructing a face. I hand painted each feature of the face in the same manner as I had the art work. Each element of the face was on a separate layer. So the eyes, nose, lips, eyebrows, ears and hair were individual layers. This gave me incredible control as I used the liquefy filter, puppet warp and transform tools to shape those elements. I then blended those into the face and had a decent likeness of the boy turned soldier (now aged by 12 years). I worked on the face in a separate file in grey scale to allow for easier blending. I then tinted the face before merging it with the background.

Finally, I was ready to assemble all the elements into one image. It had been an interesting project that involved a lot of detective work to reconstruct a face.

The client was happy with the results and now they have a family heirloom restored.

This has been one of the most challenging photo restoration I have done to date. The competed image below.

From the original scan to the completed image. Quite a transformation! Now I am ready for the next challenge.


About the author:  JS Engelbrecht began his photography career in a High School dark room for the school's Year Book. Later he entered the fashion industry and product photography before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty."

Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine art gallery.

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