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.)


Old Photos: Notes on Unsticking the Stuck

Quite a while back I wrote about evil magnetic photo albums and how scores of my family photographs were held in their death grip. The new year has brought a renewed burst of energy for this project on my part.

I’ve already covered the details of my agonizing over the decision to break up the old albums. (Pro: The glue harms the photos! Con: Removing them could splinter them!) For me, the decision was made when it became obvious the glue on many pages was failing on its own, and the photos were beginning to drop out anyway.

Also, it is so wonderful that they are not stuck anymore — that they can be slipped out of their sleeves for scanning and sharing. (Not too much mobility, though — some are really fragile.)

Beyond that, here are some notes about the process:

1. The unwaxed dental floss method of removing stubbornly stuck pictures (see here for a detailed description) is working well. Pictures are coming up very nicely, with inscriptions on the back intact. I’ve noticed, though, that one has to be very careful with prints that have the crinkle-edge borders, lest the floss catch one of the sawteeth and slice into the photo rather than underneath it.

2. It’s interesting how much my increased understanding of the family timeline has increased my ability to identify and date pictures properly. In fact, new genealogy facts — or more precisely, facts new to me — have cleared up some previously “unidentifiable” items. While some photos remain a complete mystery, I’m beginning to think that it’s premature to abandon hope entirely that they will ever be identified.

3. I’m saddened by the deterioration of the color of many prints from the mid-fifties onward. Was this a result of the magnetic albums, or just a feature of the print process? I guess I’ll be reading up on this topic.

4. I’m grateful now for my dad’s holding my feet to the fire with regard to studying German, although it was a complete bear at times. Very handy for inscriptions on my mom’s side of the family.

Wordless Wednesday: Coupla Buddies

My grandfather, John [Johann Georg] Rudroff, is the one on the right. We are not certain about the identity of the buddy on the left. I believe this picture was taken at some point in the 1930s near the Socony (Standard Oil Company of New York) plant in Greenpoint, where my grandfather worked from shortly after his arrival in America from Germany to the time of his retirement. I like this picture because it’s a nice counterbalance to my childhood memories of Grandpa, who was not the playful, humorous sort around little kids. Not mean, just not a laugh riot.

John (Johann Georg) Rudroff and friend, 1930s

After the shift was up, we hope.

P.S. Standard Oil Company of New York was born out of the 1911 breakup of the gigantic Standard Oil monopoly. It later became Mobil, which became Exxon. There’s a little corporate genealogy for you.

P.P.S.: Apparently the Greenpoint Socony plant was the locale of one of the biggest oil spills in U.S. history. Sigh.

Wordless Wednesday: A New Light

Still a mysterious location, although now there's a clue.

This photo was among a collection my mother brought home after my grandfather John Rudroff died. No one knew what the building was. When I was little I thought it was someone’s house. As I got older, I realized this building was probably not a private residence for anyone in my family — too massive. The handwriting on the back is hard to read but looks similar to that in letters written to us in later years by my great-aunt Maria Pauliana Forster, who was a nun in a nursing order her entire adult life. The inscription isn’t signed but it’s dated: 14 Nov. 1950.

Recently I was looking at it again in the hallway of a music education building (my 8-year-old and I were waiting for her music lesson to start). Under their particular brand of fluorescent lighting, for the first time I could make out some verrrrrry faint ballpoint pen markings on the surface of the photo. (Yes, on the surface of the photo. Note to preservationists: This was before I was born, OK?)

One part of the building (the part in the front) is marked “Krankenhaus” [hospital]; the other is marked “Alterhaus” [home for the aged].  Now I’m almost certain that this photo was sent by Maria Pauliana. (There is a chance it might have been sent by one of my other great-aunts, Anna, who was also a nun in the same order, but left when she was middle-aged. She might have still been a nun in 1950.)

As to where this hospital/nursing home was located, I’ve still got no idea, but at least now I know what it is.

I Assess Myself, And Am Chagrined

I couldn’t miss Assess Yourself: Challenge #3 in 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy. It’s something that seems so obvious that it never gets done. Sad to say, my report card could be better.

The Vital Documents: I’ve got the birth certificate (despite losing it once), the marriage certificate and the diplomas, all in one convenient strongbox. It’s been important for me to have this stuff together since I have moved around a bit. So, I give me an A- for this area.

The Moves: Any descendant trying to track me would be pretty mad at me by the time they got through. I was born in Ohio, raised from the age of 6 months in New Jersey, went to university in Indiana, then lived in Connecticut, Florida and Illinois before returning to New Jersey. I’d expect to make census appearances in New Jersey, Indiana, Florida and New Jersey (again) but not Ohio, Connecticut and Illinois, where my residences didn’t coincide with a census. I should make sure this is all clear on my card in my Reunion file, and it isn’t.  F

Letters: My mother wrote me some letters while I was away at school, which I’ve kept. My father wrote me exactly one letter, which was missing and presumed lost for years, until I found it quite by accident this summer while searching for something else entirely. It is now locked up safely and scanned to my computer hard drive. Now excuse me while I make digital copies of my mom’s letters, too.  B+

Publications: I’ve got my school yearbooks. And some high-school literary magazines with stories of mine. And a couple of scrapbooks  full of newspaper clippings from my reporting days, which aren’t about me, but would say something about what I did at a certain point in time. But everything’s all over the house; it would be nice to get it all together on one shelf, huh? B

Photos: My Achilles heel. Not only do I have evil magnetic albums, I used to have an Evil Photo Box until several years ago. I did finally get my photos out of a huge cardboard moving box and sort them by year into a bunch of acid-free photo boxes. Last summer, I sorted out the digital photos on my current hard drive and backed them up. One hard drive has already failed on me. A month before that happened, I had purchased an external hard drive and backed up, so I still have my earlier digital photos. But it was a close, close thing. I’m grading myself generously; I think my fifth-grade nun would have been harsher.  D

So much to be done! At least I feel more charitable toward my ancestors now. We must share the Disorganized Document gene.

Evil Magnetic Albums!

I’ve been struggling of late with an old magnetic album – the kind from the 1970s with sticky pages and lethal plastic coverings. The consensus is that their adhesives are  damaging to photos.

As if that weren’t enough, my albums have peculiarly awful fluorescent floral covers. They look like something Monet would have painted at Giverny – on acid.

So:  Get ‘em out, put them in archivally safe albums, breathe a sigh of relief. Obviously!

But nothing’s every really obvious, is it? Not even with magnetic photo albums. I started reading and Googling and asking around, and the more I learned, the more conflicted  I became about two basic questions:

A. Should I dismantle the old albums?
B. If so, how?

Regarding Question A, the bulk of opinion out there favors removal from magnetic albums. (Older, non-sticky albums are another story – most conservators say to leave them alone.)

But a respectable minority points out that sometimes, photos are stuck in magnetic  albums so firmly that extracting them poses the risk of other kinds of damage – shredding the backs of the photos so that inscriptions are lost, for example.
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