The Art Of Photographic Restoration

Observations and Excerpts from Chats with Joe Muir2009-2014

Joe Muir has long been recognised by his contemporaries and clients – including a number of America’s iconic photographers – as primus inter pares, a virtuoso of the wet darkroom, and master printer. The foundation of his success was laid by his father, a professional photographer, who introduced him to black and white film development and printing at an age when he had to stand on a wooden crate to reach the enlarger. As photographic reproduction technology made a seismic change from analog/chemical to digital, his clients – Berenice Abbot, Todd Webb, Harold Feinstein followed the trend– many, reluctantly, fearful that digitalization would eviscerate their hard-won skills and uncommon talent.

Joe moved with them, step by step acquiring and mastering the software and techniques necessary to achieve optimal results from printing their digital images. As he did, he listened carefully to what they and other clients (such as George Daniell, Verner Reed, Barbara Goodbody and Judy Glickman) were saying. ‘It was reassuring’ he says. ‘Nothing had really changed.’ Success was still based on capturing the right image at the right time, and reproducing it optimally. Technology had not, and would not, replace talent. Instead, digital photography offered a valuable, multi/faceted medium which, in the right hands, eventually would offer prints equal to the quality and sensitivity of traditional wet darkroom black and white.

As early as 1988, Thomas and John Knoll had developed a pioneer imaging program that would eventually be known as Adobe Photoshop, to facilitate working in the digital medium – progressively introducing software to simulate results traditionally achieved through enlarging, cropping, masking, burning, dodging – even permitting toning with sepia and other effects. Joe moved with the times, upgrading software and hardware – often combining traditional skills such as airbrushing with digital enhancement. He experimented endlessly with printers, inks and papers designed for the new medium, extending the range of possibilities and the life of the new prints.

By the end of the first decade of the new century, it was commonly (albeit grudgingly) acknowledged that a digital print from the hands of a master printer could match the definition, subtlety and tonal qualities of a silver gelatin print. Joe’s prints, including Berenice Abbot’s historical Eugene Atget album, scanned from the original glass plate negatives and printed digitally, became coveted collectibles.

In 2009, Joe was contacted by Michael Flannery of Aldine Fine Art, who had reviewed nearly half a million photographs over six years of intensive research in private and public collections, museums and other archives, and had made a selection of 3,800 historic images dating from 1845 – ca. 1935, which he was determined to rescue for posterity. Most, due to the distressed nature of the negatives or prints, had never been published, and could not be until restored and enhanced.

His search for a master restorer and printer led to Joe Muir, who felt that the project would bring to bear the vast range of skills and experience he had acquired – crowning a career begun nearly fifty years earlier. In the past four years nearly 900 images from the Aldine Fine Art archive have been restored by Joe, to take their place in museums, exhibitions, historic collections and even in hospitals and pediatric wards for children with cancer.

Joe, asked what imaging programs he uses to achieve such extraordinary results, seems taken aback.

“Those are only tools,” he explains. “The important thing is the aesthetic and subject content. You need to study the damaged, often incomplete image, and try to imagine what the photographer was seeing and thinking, and what he or she meant to convey. You then work backwards to achieve that vision. Sometimes, well into a restoration, I realize that I’m on the wrong track; scrap what I’ve done and start over again. It takes patience. The Antigonish Highland Games reconstruction and restoration from damaged prints, took nearly two weeks to finish.

What we don’t do is to crop, add elements or change the nature of the image. Honesty – in other words, respect for the photographer’s intent, as I perceive it – characterizes what we do. The final decision is a value judgment based on the aesthetic qualities achieved by a toned print such as sepia, and the type of paper. In the case of the Antigonish vintage photographs, we decided to print in sepia, which enhances the historical and nostalgic properties of the subject matter, and lends a sense of immediacy and familiarity.

When all is said and done, vintage photographic restoration requires you to know what you’re doing, be faithful to what you believe was the photographer’s vision, and love doing it.”


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