Snapshots of Sandy: Group restores victims’ photos


NEW YORK (AP) — Of all the images of Superstorm Sandy’s destruction, the ones that linger for Florence Catania are the torn, stained pictures that hung on her walls.

Her mother’s decades-old wedding portrait, her own eighth-grade graduation photo, a snapshot that captured her mom on a carefree teenage day, all damaged in a Sandy-sparked fire at Catania’s home in suburban Deer Park, N.Y.

But volunteers scattered around the world are about to start digitally mending Catania’s personal photos and others battered by Sandy, banding together online to restore items that can’t be rebought.

Founded after Hurricane Katrina, a nonprofit network of photographers, graphic artists and hobbyists has repaired more than 9,000 pictures discolored by floods, pockmarked by debris, speckled by mold and otherwise damaged by disasters in recent years. The Sandy project, which started this weekend, promises to be one of Operation Photo Rescue’s most expert efforts yet.

“It means a lot to me,” Catania said after bringing her photos to the restorers Saturday. “These are irreplaceable.”

The restorers began shooting digital copies of the damaged prints with high-resolution professional cameras and specialized no-glare lighting Saturday at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, wearing white gloves to handle the images as though they were museum pieces.

Indeed, a Metropolitan Museum of Art imaging expert and two of the museum’s photo conservators were on hand to provide advice, and two of the camera setups had been used to help the Atlanta-based King Center digitize hundreds of thousands of documents associated with Martin Luther King Jr.

After Catania left with her original prints, Operation Photo Rescue veteran Dennis McKeever glued himself to a computer screen, delicately copying snippets of forehead, sections of background, and overlaying them on similar, damaged areas of the wedding photo. Within about a half-hour, the retired computer network engineer had sewn up a sizeable gash in the portrait and was testing settings that might provide more visual data to help clean the apparently sepia-toned image.

“It’s a matter of feeling your way through things,” said McKeever, who has restored more than 100 photos through the group.

Other digital files would be uploaded to a password-protected website, where Operation Photo Rescue’s roughly 3,000 volunteers can choose images they’d like to work on.

It’s a painstaking process that can entail both resourcefulness — replacing a missing left foot by duplicating and reversing the right foot, for instance — and research. A volunteer might try to look up a flag in a photo’s background to see how it’s supposed to appear, as an example.

The average picture takes a few hours of work; some take as long as a week, said Operation Photo Rescue President Margie Hayes, a technical writer-turned-graphic artist. She got involved in the group after 2007 floods in nearby Coffeyville, Kan., about 120 miles from her home in El Dorado, Kan.

The refurbished prints are sent to the owners for free. Film-digitizing company DigMyPics has donated the printmaking and postage; PhotoShelter, a photography site, donates the online space where the images are stored for volunteers to see.

The Sandy effort also entailed other key contributions: three image-capturing stations, provided by Ken Allen Studios, a digital-imaging business, and JPMorgan Chase. The finance giant acquired the equipment to aid the King Center’s digitization project and was “excited to provide this technology to enable families in the New York area to salvage family photos that would otherwise have been lost forever,” Chief Information Officer Guy Chiarello said in a statement.

Such contributions are key for an organization that had to cut off $25-a-month stipends for some volunteers’ Internet service when a grant dried up in 2009. Now it solicits members for donations whenever it mobilizes to a disaster area. Hayes said she raised about $3,000 for the New York trip, and she’d like to find a way to make a similar run to a Sandy-struck area of New Jersey.

Dave Ellis, the photography director at The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va., and Rebecca Sell, who was then a photographer at the paper, launched Operation Photo Rescue in 2006, after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast the previous summer.

The group now counts volunteers in all 50 states and 75 other countries, about 50 to 100 of whom are very active, Hayes said.

It has responded to tornadoes, flash floods and tropical storms around the United States, amassing a gallery of before-and-after images that span generations: a formal childhood portrait, rippled and flecked with dirt. A black-and-white image of a Victorian-style mansion, faded to a hazy peach. A 1970s or ’80s wedding photo, so waterlogged it looked as though the couple’s faces had been scribbled on with crayons. Someone cradling a dog, the apparently decades-old snapshot splotched with a chemical yellow.

“We’re really trying to restore people’s family memories and community memories,” said Katrin Eismann, an SVA professor. While she co-wrote the book that guides much of the volunteer effort, “Adobe Photoshop Restoration & Retouching,” this weekend marked the first time she participated in person.

“If we didn’t do it, after a while, those prints are just going to disintegrate.”

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