I’ve been working on scanning and repairing/conserving an old family photo album over this last week or so. The album belongs to my mother-in-law’s family (the Ecks) and is almost a century old with a leather cover and probably a hundred 9″x 13″ pages. There are a lot of great photos from about 1915 on in this album. It’s pretty amazing it’s survived this well for so long and I want to help it and its contents survive even longer.
I’m going through it, page by page, dismounting the photos (held on by old photo corners, thankfully, and not glue) and then hi-res scanning each one. I scan both front and back if there is anything on the back of the photo. I’m scanning into a TIFF file (a loss-less format), then pulling that into LightRoom to crop the photo correctly from any blank space. These cropped images then get exported from LightRoom to a TIFF (again – for archiving) and to a JPEG for web distribution. Any reverse-side or album notations are copied into the file’s description field when the file is saved. Each image file is named with album, page and item numbers noted as part of the file name as well.
I’m not attempting to clean, spot remove or otherwise edit the photos right now – my goal is just to get them into a digital format so they can be shared and archived digitally.
In the process of this task, I keep finding the photos in the scans are not level and I’d have to adjust them digitally to be level and then they weren’t square either. (By “square” I mean the corners are at 90 degree angles, not that the photo itself is a square photo.) At first I thought this was because I wasn’t being careful enough when I put the photo down on my flatbed scanner but I was extremely careful and it still happened. I must have needed more coffee (not on the same desk as the album, thank you) but I eventually realized what the issue was and tested it on a few sample photos.
Eureka – the photos aren’t square to start with!
Sometimes the photo paper is itself not square. It’s easy to see this when I put the photo up to a t-square. Many are not off a lot, but enough to be annoying.
Sometimes the actual paper is square but the photo printed on it is askew on the paper so the margins are not even all the way around.
When I thought about it, this unevenness actually made sense. I bet that these irregularities are a product of the fact the photos in this album are hand-printed photos and likely on hand-cut paper or hand-trimmed after printing. In this modern era, we’re so used to having machines precisely line up and trim everything that a photo not square on its paper is a rarity.
At least that’s my excuse for not thinking of this sooner.
I decided to not try to trim the scans of these photos to be square. If a photo was askew on the paper, I left it that way. If a photo’s paper was not square, I trimmed the digital copy only to the edge of the paper so a sliver of white background sometimes appears. I would rather retain the imperfections of these old photos as a part of their history than try to make them closer to square. This way the whole of the original is preserved as well, since I don’t know what will be needed later.
When the photos are placed back in the album, I’m replacing any lost or torn photo corners with new archival ones (I couldn’t find the shape of the originals, so I’m using a newer style but the same flat black).
When I’m done scanning this album, I’ll place sheets of archival acid-free buffered tissue between each page as there is strong evidence of the photos reacting to each other where they are touching. Then I’ll publish this album’s photos for the family, burn some DVD’s of them to pass out, and return the original album to my mother-in-law.
It’s a long process, especially since I’m scanning the photos at 1200 dpi. Each photo takes about 4 minutes to scan.
For fun – here’s one of the photos I just love out of this album. This is a picture of my husband’s grandfather, Robert Nelson Eck, at age two in about 1915. I love the outfit, the pose, the little button shoes. This is an exception among the photos in this album as most are amateur photos and this is clearly a studio photo.