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Restoring old photos of Israel

In his latest newsletter, Todd Bolen explains the painstaking process of restoring old photos to create the 8-volume American Colony and Eric Matson Collection. It’s a fascinating project that really makes you appreciate the end result. Here’s his full article…

Shortly after producing a collection of modern-day photographs in the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands (initially released in January 2000), I began work on a supplementary collection that would peel back the recent layers of time to reveal the sites of the Holy Land before the changes brought by modernization.  The initial fruit of this work was the release of 8 volumes of Historic Views of the Holy Land in November 2004.

About that same time, I learned that the Library of Congress was digitizing the G. Eric and Edith Matson Negatives.  Between 1966 and 1981, Eric Matson and his beneficiary donated this collection to the Library of Congress. But public access was limited and costly until 2004, when the first negatives were scanned and made available online, a huge job in itself!  In browsing through these photographs, I quickly realized two things.  First, these photos would be extremely useful to teachers and researchers of Palestine and the surrounding areas.  Second, the collection could be greatly improved in a number of ways.

The Kazneh (Treasury) at Petra, damaged stereographic image

The first step in the process that culminated in this published collection was downloading all of the online images, which were made available in three sizes. The medium size was 1024 pixels wide.  This is too small if 1) the photo is damaged; 2) the photo is a stereographic image; 3) one wanted to enlarge a particular portion; or 4) one desired to print the image.  The large size was a much higher resolution (e.g., 5200 x 3600 pixels), but these were in tif format, which meant the file sizes were so large that they were impractical for regular use.  At 25-70 MB each in size, these images would take a long time to download and quickly fill up hard drives.  To make this the best collection possible, I downloaded all of the tif files and converted them to jpg format, thus retaining the highest resolution, but at a more manageable file size.

The next step was to identify each image as accurately as possible.  Some of the images would be immediately recognizable to a recent visitor to Israel, but many are difficult to identify even for long-time residents.  To expedite the process, Tony Garland, with helpful advice from staff at the Library of Congress, created a script so that all of the descriptive information for the photos on the Library of Congress website could be accessed in a personal database.  Seth Rodriquez, now finishing his PhD dissertation, went through all of the images and wrote a short, descriptive filename for each one.  Andrei Tsvirinko then copied the names from the database to the jpg image itself.  All of the steps described here are simple enough in themselves, but repeating them 14,000 times requires great perseverance!

The next step in the process was cropping the photos.  Many images are stereographs, that is, nearly identical side-by-side images which, when viewed through a stereoscope, appear as a single, three-dimensional image.  Other photographs had tape marks, water damage, or other blemishes which were best removed by cropping.  At a later stage, some photos were cropped to alter the orientation from vertical to horizontal, thus creating a more compact view for computer use and eliminating extensive stretches of sky or earth (see example below). Other adjustments were required for photos that had been scanned in mirror-image or were uploaded upside-down.

Sidon castle, stereographic image, before cropping

Sidon castle, after cropping and adjustments

At this point, I began sorting the images into categories.  It was necessary to accomplish this step early in the process because of the numerous duplicates and near-duplicates in the collection.  An important contribution, therefore, of this edition over the online collection is its selection of the best images and its logical arrangement of them (either geographically or topically).

City of David, 1900-1920, before and after cropping

Along the way, numerous corrections and refinements were made to the descriptions provided by the photographers of the American Colony and Eric Matson photo services.  Some images were misidentified in the photographers' notes, some were labeled only generally, and some bore names no longer in use today.  In other cases, we were able to correct or improve upon the supplied dates and identify images that were presented in mirror image.

One of the most time-consuming tasks of this project was the removal of blemishes from the images.  Some of the negatives are over 100 years old, and time, transport, and storage have taken their toll on the material.  Since the goal of this project was to provide "teaching quality" images, larger specks and markings were removed, though smaller blemishes may still be visible when magnified. In some cases, the damage was so great that it was impossible to restore the image.  Other adjustments were made to photos for brightness, contrast, and color.

Old City of Jerusalem, before and after restoration (enlarge for detail)

The creation of PowerPoint presentations with the images serves several purposes.  First, unlike jpg files, slides in a PowerPoint file can be arranged in sequential order, and usually I have organized these following a natural tour route.  As many will use these photographs in presentations, having the images already properly sized and placed in PowerPoint makes it quick and easy to copy slides from one presentation to another.

Second, explanatory notes or relevant quotations can be "attached" to the photograph by means of the "speaker's notes" section in PowerPoint (see screenshot).  Many of the photographs in these volumes are now accompanied by quotations from 19th century explorers, travelers, and writers.  (The Jerusalem volume is annotated with original notes by Tom Powers.) Yuliya Molitvenik spent hundreds of hours reading old books and rare journals in search of choice descriptive statements.  These were usually written before the photos were taken (in the early 20th century), but they provide additional insight into the sites and scenes depicted in the photographs.  Sometimes the quotations describe details that precisely match what is in the photo, and other times they may provide a different "picture."  The quotations come from the best available sources of the day, and are valuable in their own right.  

Ultimately, we believe this collection has been improved through editing, organization, corrections, and the addition of supplemental quotations. Its superior resolution, format, and presentation will make it easy to use.


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