Through a lens, clearly
The Foxearth website started with a mass of materials. Like any newly-formed Historical Society, we assessed what we already had, before working out what we wanted to do next. Besides the transcribed newspaper cuttings, we had a large number of photographs, from a variety of sources. The collection of local postcards is a rather specialised branch of local history, and we had three good local collections to draw from; Stan Thompsons's archive of Cavendish, and area, postcards, Terry Baxter's photographs of Glemsford, and Tom's of Foxearth and surroundings.
The photographs themselves varied enormously in quality. Some of the very early ones were very faded and others were poor copies. Many were perfect, and shot with cameras whose sharpness and accuracy compares well with today's cameras.
The best photographs were those which had been 'in the family' for generations. Mrs Hartley's photographs of old Glemsford were fascinating, as were the postcards from Stan which even had his grandmothers' writing on the back.
We learned a lot about restoring photographs from the huge effort of scanning in around 800 of them. Age and use can cause all sorts of damage. Some were so bad that it became a running gag as to the magic that could be wrought on old photographs. The colour picture of the Glemsford Water Tower was so faded that we didn't realise it was in colour; The photo of the wartime patrons of the Pinkuah Arms was so black that all one could see were a few blurred faces.
Healing the worst of the photos involved a variety of techniques. A photo-editor on the computer was used, after the photo was scanned-in. Balance, contrast, and gamma would all be adjusted to give the best possible balance. The Cloning tools would then be used, rather like plastic surgery, to get rid of the worst damage. If the photograph had been printed, it would have to be blurred with a gaussian blur, and then re-focused. Blotches and faded areas would need to be minimised, and speckling removed. Often, a poor photograph would be restored and then a much better copy would turn up. the work would have to be repeated with the better copy.
One of the most interesting techniques we used was re-focussing. This is a mathematical technique that is able to take a blurred image and produce a properly frcussed image from it. The maths was developed in order to produce good prints of the NASA moon-landing, and we can now get versions that can produce good results from old photographs. (We use software called 'Focus Magic'). This came in very handy, particularly with many of Tom's photographs which were copies of photographs taken with a hand-held camera.
So now we have an archive of photgraphs on the site which are stored in reasonably high resolution sufficient to produce photograph-sized prints. The better ones will print up to A3 without any perceived loss of quality.
Why bother? Has it been worth the effort? I think so. Postcards are rapidly increasing in value at the moment and are disappearing away from local hands into distant collections. It is getting harder to get hold of old photographs of house and neighbourhood. Just as important are the photographs of people. Charabang outings, parties, people at work, football teams, choirs and studio portraits. I'd love to know their names, where they lived, who they were related to, and all the other details of their lives. The photographs are an essential source of primary materials that tell us about our local history from the 1850s onwards. We should preserve copies of them before they all become dispersed.