Photo detective: retouched Images
9/27/2009

To correct photographic defects and damage, Lorie Zirbes used to hand-touch images. Now, thanks to photo-editing software, she can use her computer. But Zirbes still needs to identify some of her retouched photos. Here are before-and-after pictures of one of her unidentified family photographs. Zirbes would like to know when the photo was taken, so she can identify the couple.

Examining the scanned image (Figure 1) of the original photograph, you'll notice flaking in the background and rust spots showing through. These clues identify the images as a tintype. A daguerreotype has a shiny surface and doesn't show this type of damage. An ambrotype has a backing that flakes off the back of the glass, allowing you to see through the picture. Knowing that this photograph is a tintype dates the picture to after 1854, the first year tintypes were available.

The couple's clothing dates the image to the mid-1850s. The details in the woman's costume that date the image are her off-the-shoulder sleeves, fingerless gloves and the gold watch she wears on a long chain. The bodice of her dress has a fan shape gathered at the waist. In the mid-1850s men wore shawl-collared vests and shirts with bow ties made from loosely tied silk, similar to this gentleman's. Men also wore their hair combed away from the face.

Based on the clothing clues, Zirbes and her sister Linda were able to identify the couple as Samuel (born 1832) and Caroline Houser, who appeared in the federal population census of 1880 in Cavetown, Md. Linda and Lorie are related to the Housers through their son Jacob Elmer.

As you can see here, in addition to dating and identifying a photograph, you also can enhance an image. Zirbes used Adobe Photoshop 7.0 to eliminate the deteriorating background and fix the oxidation of the photographic mat (Figure 2). There are several photo-editing products on the market that can help you repair your family photographs—from the simple editors that come with scanners to professional software. In my next column, I'll examine digital options for family photo historians.

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