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Photographs capture life's fleeting moments, allowing us to stroll back in time and retrace the intersection of our past and present lives.
Families forced to flee from their homes after floods, tornadoes, and fires often reveal amazing inner strength in coping with financial losses and the destruction of material possessions. What often seems the most painful to them is the loss of precious family photos.
When devastating tornadoes hit Lester, Alabama, a year ago, Patty Bullion gathered debris that the storm scattered on her property: yearbook pages, baby photos, a diploma. She felt a deep impulse to reunite tornado victims with their irreplaceable photos and memorabilia.
So she created a Facebook page, posting images of the items she had found. Over 2,000 items have been reclaimed.
Family photos and memorabilia often are entrusted to one or two family members. They provide storage for decades, hoping that one day the next generation will volunteer to keep the photos intact and family stories alive. All it takes is one weak family link who fails to fulfill this awesome responsibility, and a precious heritage is lost forever.
Sometimes fate miraculously intervenes. Addison Logan, 13, bought a Polaroid camera for $1 at a garage sale in Wichita, Kansas. Curious about his find, he opened the camera, and saw a finished photo in the film cartridge.
He showed the photo to his grandma, who couldn't believe her eyes. It was a photo of her son, Scott (Addison's uncle), who had died 23 years earlier in a car accident. He was pictured with a girlfriend.
Even more surprising, neither the girlfriend nor her family had held the garage sale. No one can explain where the camera came from, who took the photo, or why it remained in the camera. But the photo was a precious connection to Scott's 26-year-old son, Dayne.
The odds of identifying a 150-year-old image are more challenging. A Richmond, Virginia, Civil War museum is attempting to return two photos found between two soldiers who died at Port Royal,Virginia. One soldier was Union, one was Confederate. Both are studio photos of little girls; each photo is framed in a hinged case with a leather exterior. When you look at the pictures, you can imagine the heartbreak of the little girls whose fathers never returned from war.
My family has a small, beautifully framed portrait of my great-great-grandfather, Alexander McClusky, in his Civil War uniform. After his death in the War, it was likely painted from a photo. He left behind a widow and five children.
Grandma helped me identify family members in most of the photos I'm storing. But relatives have given me other mystery photos. Perhaps a distant cousin could provide me important clues? But time is running out.
Today, electronic archives are gaining in popularity. Experts advise scanning original photos and storing the images on a CD or hard drive. Scanning could be harmful, however, if photos are too old or fragile. But how do you know? And what happens when CDs become obsolete?
I no longer own magnetic photo albums, and I've purchased acid-free storage boxes. Earlier this year, I enrolled in a photo preservation workshop. This winter, I know that I need to roll up my sleeves and get to work.
How about you?
New Tools Bring Old Photos to Life
Today's technology offers some powerful tools for restoring damaged and faded photos. It's possible to edit and enhance original heirloom photos using Photoshop or other software programs.
You can cover cracks, scratches, specks, and spots in old photos, and it's possible to resaturate and rebalance colors or adjust brightness and contrast.
But first, you may need to take steps to preserve the bits and pieces of your family's narrative.
Here are tips for newspaper clippings:
- Don't paper clip, fold, or staple a clipping.
- Store the clipping in a polyester-film folder with a sheet of alkaline-buffered paper as the backing.
- Photocopy onto nonacidic paper only.
- Laminate only if you don't want to preserve the collecting value of historic newspapers.
Here are tips for photographs:
- Avoid using rubber bands or paper clips to hold photos together.
- Use a photo-safe pen from a photo or craft store.
- Avoid storing photos in unfinished or uninsulated attics and basements.
- Look for the term "archival quality." Many scrapbooking stores carry acid-free and lignin-free paper and storage boxes.
Here's a good source for supplies:
P.O. Box 787
Brea, CA 92822-0787