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Why Do We Restore Old Photographs?

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Read Time: 3 min
This post is part of a series called How to Retouch, Recover, and Restore Old Photographs.
Historical Context, Contemporary Value: Old Photos as Cultural Documents

Why Restore Photographs?

In a broader context, we usually see photographs that have been preserved and restored from important moments in history. Hindsight's a wonderful thing, and we don't always realise we're capturing something that generations will be interested in years from now. You can't keep everything, but think carefully about which photos to cull and which to keep. This is really just pot luck. You don't know what's going to have historical interest later on, but try to think about which photos tell a story or show a way of life.

Photographs are a great way of recording what happens, they can capture a place, events in a place, or people's lives. Photographs are something that people have used now for over 100 years to record, so they're really useful when looking at how life has changed. People are more likely to look at the picture than they are to read and they can be so much more descriptive of a place or an event compared to just words.

Be Selective

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Consider which photographs you want to keep, carefully

You don't need 20 photos showing the same thing, so just keep the best ones unless they're part of a series chronicling a time or event. The popularity of digital cameras means that there are a lot more photographs being taken. These days, almost everyone has a camera on their mobile phone, so just about any event is being photographed and documented by several people. In the past, it was difficult finding photographs of events but now there’s almost too much being produced and you're swamped with information.

Damaged Doesn’t Mean Discard

If photographs are damaged you don't necessarily have to write them off. There is a lot we can do digitally ourselves these days to bring them back to an acceptable condition. You can also send off a hard copy to be restored professionally if it’s a photograph that's really important to you.

If there’s a damaged photograph that an archive have, for example, which shows a significant event in history and there aren’t any others, they’ll usually send it off to professionals to have the hard copy (or digital version if it’s more recent) restored. They can clean the image and put it back onto new paper.

One problem with photographs when they’ve been used in displays or albums, is they're often put onto paper or cardboard, which degrades at a different rate to the photograph. They’re also subject to different threats, they absorb moisture differently and are prone to insect damage. There’s a lot that can be done to minimise these effects and clean and stabilise the photograph again.

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Insect damage on the carboard backing of an old photograph

Think About Donating Old Photographs

If you have extra photographs, or you’ve amassed a large collection and don’t know what to do with them, please don’t throw them away. Many local groups and archives would welcome these additions, so think about donating them. Near where I live, there’s a group called the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, who have people coming in on a weekly basis just to give them old photographs.

“Photos of their parents or their grandparents might not seem very important, but these are going to be fascinating for future generations.” Norman Kirtlan – Sunderland Antiquarian Society

When you've got your final selection of photographs that you want to keep, there might be some that mean something to you, and some that you've got absolutely no context for. It's all part of the fun.

In the next tutorial we'll look at the historical context and some contemporary concerns for old photographs. 

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