The sophisticated tools used in today’s photographic restoration can bring even the most damaged and fragile image back to life. But the question you always have to ask is: just how do I want that cherished family portrait from a century ago, or that favourite photo from my childhood to be reborn?The possibilities are endless and, of course, “do it yourself” add-ons available with today’s home computers can make anyone an instant photo fixer – in their own eyes at least. But when it comes to the more demanding tasks involved in restoring faded or damaged images, retouching and recolouring them to their original glory, or even modernising the image if you so desire, it takes a deft and sensitive hand.
Monte Luke studio has a long and illustrious history – almost a century of it – doing this exacting work. Indeed, images have been manipulated from the beginnings of photography. Anyone who says a photograph never lies should think again, suggests Keith Friendship, the owner and operator of Monte Luke studio today. “As soon as photographers realised images could be retouched they were doing it.”
Early on, they used pencil – heavier leads to make wrinkles disappear, lighter ones to take out fine lines, for example. Later, before colour photography was widely available, oil and watercolour paints were used to put a glow in debutantes’ cheeks and life in brides’ bouquets. This precision work was done by hand and at its height Monte Luke had a team of more than fifteen retouchers and colourists. It was extremely skilled work, says Keith. “In many ways, it was more methodical than artistic and the retoucher or colourist had to be very much in tune with the effect that the client wanted. The best retouchers and colourists always knew when to stop, when enough was enough.”
Today’s high resolution scanners and copiers, digital photography and editing and precision printing on archival papers have seen these skilled artisans phased out, but Keith says the aim of achieving what clients want has never been more exacting. “You have to give them a wide variety of examples to show what can be achieved. Then they can make a value judgment and we work to suit their circumstance.”
Often, the studio will have nothing but an old and faded photograph to work from. For example, they recently restored an image of Australia’s most famous bushranger, Ned Kelly, his brother, Dan, and other members of their gang. The photo was taken, date unknown, on a property that belonged to the forebears of a Sydney woman who now owns the original. “You treat it accordingly. Every shot goes into a fire proof safe while it’s with us. We see that as paramount – something that’s irreplaceable to the client.”
Just as often, there are technical issues. Many older prints can’t be scanned, usually the first step in digitally rebuilding an image, because their surface is damaged – perhaps warped or cracked, sometimes water or insect damaged – and they have to be rephotographed instead. Many nineteen-forties and fifties photos were printed on paper known as “velvet stipple” because it softened the image. But after more than half a century, its heavy texture tends to become three-dimensional and difficult to scan. Then there are images under glass that are too fragile to remove or those on old glass plates and even tin – the possibilities are endless. “So it can be technically challenging, but you always want to get as much out of an image as you can. Each job presents its own set of problems, but with the myriad of tools we have available today there’s also its own range of possibilities.”