In Living Color, Once

Another in an occasional series on how Operation Magnetic Album Mayhem is going.


So obviously, I was not paying sufficient attention over the years to various lectures on how color in old photographs inevitably fades. I mean, I was aware that it was a problem for some people, but it wasn’t going to happen to my family’s photos, right? At least, not until I opened some albums, took a good look and realized that it had, it had.

To summarize, if you aren’t up to clicking through the links: Color process is a finite, fickle thing, and if you’ve got vintage color photographs, chances are they have faded, often badly. They will fade that much faster if they are in frames exposed to direct sunlight. But they even fade if they’re enclosed in albums. They even fade in the dark. It’s awful.

A thread on a digital photography forum pointed me in the direction of a book by a specialist called Ctein (that is his name; he only goes by one): Digital Restoration from Start to Finish. They were saying that this is the bible on the topic. I read an excerpt, a case study in restoring a faded high school portrait, and it piqued my interest enough to want to read the whole thing.

Without an arsenal of artistic software at my command — Adobe Photoshop Elements is as sophisticated as I get — I’m not sure what I personally can do to make my scans of faded color pictures look better. Still, I would like to understand the dynamics of the process a lot more than I currently do.

Fortunately, my dad had an extended fling with color slides in the late sixties and the seventies. Unfortunately, I believe the slides may be a mix of Kodachrome and Ektachrome. Kodachrome had a great shelf life; apparently, even 60-year-old Kodachrome slides still look pretty good. Ektachrome slides, on the other hand, put you right back in the color-faded doghouse.

Photos are such a pain. I’m sorry, I know I should be all saintly and archival and preservationist here, but really. There are so many of them, and they’re undated, and uncaptioned. And they’re fading, even as I write. The old albums and slide carousels are taunting me with a siren call, like the “beating of his hideous heart” that sent Poe’s villain screaming his evil deeds to the bewildered cops.

Except instead of a muffled thud, it’s a hiss: Weeeee’re faaaddddinnggg…sloooowly but sureeeelllyy….

OK, gotta get a grip. One step at a time.

How about this? Try for a greatest-hits collection. Maybe pick one photo from each endless series of babies and parties and vacations that really epitomizes the lot. (OK, panicking again at that thought, but whatever.) Then see if it’s possible to make a nicer print from the original negative. My parents were good about keeping the negatives, after all.

Make it a group thing. Have a negative party with the siblings. Yeah, that’s it.

(Except  that “Negative Party” doesn’t sound like a good event title for the Evite, though. Hmmm.)


2 Comments on “In Living Color, Once”

  1. Susan says:

    I should probably make this an anonymous comment. I am such a coward. But here goes. I’m throwing hundreds and hundreds of photos and slides away. The people they mattered to have been dead for decades. I have spent years trying to figure out who these people are. I give up.

    That said, I have SELECTIVELY chosen a few to digitize and preserve. I choose pictures that express something of the place and time even if I never know who the people are – a picnic, a party, a car ride. The rest – r.i.p.

    • Yes, it sounds really subversive, but I’m thinking that in certain cases your approach makes sense. I mean, when we’re tied up in knots about it to the the point where we can’t bring ourselves to cull blurry photos with people’s heads cut off … maybe it’s time to rethink!

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