Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A touch of class

One of the most fascinating photographic exhibits I've attended was a show of George Hurrell's portraits at the University of Southern California library.  Hurrell was a master of Old Hollywood glamor.  It's hard to find material of his under free license so here's a link to his iconic portrait of Jane Russell.  Hurrell was a very talented photographer whose legacy is augmented by two very fortunate circumstances: his subjects were among the most beautiful human beings on the planet and Hurrell employed a stellar team of retouchers.  During an era when plate photography was getting supplanted by film for most purposes, Hurrell shot on oversized glass plates; his retouchers would have half an hour to retouch the original negative before it dried.  The results require viewing at close range to fully appreciate: they don't feel artificial. Errol Flynn looks genuine down to the pores on his cheeks, except it isn't a close shave. Those pores look like he never grew stubble at all.

Hurell's work came to mind tonight as I was dabbling with a very different undertaking.  Although it wouldn't be right to beautify a portrait subject for encyclopedic restoration, reconstructing data on photographic prints does bear similarities.  Bad image editing takes on an airbrushed appearance similar to a weak attempt at physical retouching.  Good restoration work on high resolution digital files includes reconstructing photographic grain at damaged areas.  The finished image needs to appear credible.  For Hurrell's studio it wasn't enough to take out stubble; they had to rebuild Flynn's pores.  It isn't enough to take out dirt and scratches; I rebuild grain.

Images that are at the margins of restorability fascinate me.  This one of Cy Young from 1905, for instance.  It's shot through with problems: faded, stained, smeared, dirty, and creased across the middle.  At full resolution it also has fingerprint marks (remember from Honus Wagner how difficult fingerprints can be?) and the Cy Young print even carries a mirror image imprint from a ball point pen.  The print was probably stored with a sheet of handwritten paper facing it, and over years the ink transferred.  It'd be a very tall order to repair the damage.  If an editor gets that far, there's also the dilemma of whether to crop away part of the stadium to get rid of two distracting figures at far right.  Plus it's contrasty and Young's posture is awkward.  But then it's also a wonderful little scene of a professional ballpark in use at the start of the twentieth century.  And it is Cy Young.

This type of image is digital quicksand: alluring enough to want to try, damaged enough to be monumentally hard, and no matter how good the restoration is there's a serious chance that reviewers will reject it at featured picture candidacy due to the underlying compositional flaws.  I specifically asked Staxringold to stay away from it.  And then, being a sucker, I dabbled at it myself.

Here's a detail of one of the more heavily damaged areas.  The wispy horizontal stripes with a bluish hue are surface glare from the reproduction.  The print buckled when it got creased, so digitization picked up undesirable details of the print texture.  Accompanying these lines are a set of fainter horizontal dark bands that received too little light during reproduction.  A fairly large stain is also visible at left.  The challenge is figuring out what to do with this.  It's editable: most of the important data hasn't been harmed directly.  I've resisted the temptation to drag a clone stamp across it because it's important to retain the impression of a crowd scene.

This is where it's come after more effort than I'd care to admit.  Obviously nowhere near completed.  It's been more like an exercise in reconstructing grain and texture: rebuilding the wooden beam, melding the brown stain, reducing highlights on the folds.  Most of this work was done six pixels wide with a healing brush at 200% resolution.  It builds skills to toy around with heavily damaged material.  Like Hurrell's retouchers, the art is to reconstruct something believable in place of the problems.  It's time to set this one aside and think of alternate solutions.  Possibly next I'll separate out the blue channel.  The subconscious can be a wonderful assistant; the subconscious can chew on this task for a while.

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