My grandmother's graduation portrait, a photo restoration project ...

My grandmother's restored graduation portrait, photographer unknown ...

By DOMINIQUE JAMES

The young, poised, confident beauty in this restored sepia-tone graduation portrait is my Filipina maternal grandmother. Her name is Imelda Miraña Balderian. She was married to a lawyer, had five children, and 14 grandchildren. I am the first of her 14 grandchildren.

This picture was taken around the time of her graduation from a master's degree program in education at the National Teachers College in Manila, Philippines.

After completing her studies, she returned to Tacloban City, Leyte (where she hailed), and dedicated herself to becoming a Home Economics teacher at a nearby elementary school. The school where she taught was so close that you could see it from the living room window of her two-storey house. As far as I know, and though she did so many, many things on the side, like helping my grandfather manage the family’s coconut farm lands, being a teacher was the only formal job she ever held in her entire life.

When I was a kid, and for about 5 years, I lived with my grandmother and my grandfather in their two-storey house in Tacloban City. And, I was enrolled in that same elementary school where she was teaching.

I don’t recall seeing her graduation picture when I was a boy. The very first time I saw it would be years and years later at my grandmother's unfinished but livable house in Kamuning, Quezon City. It was there where she lived out the rest of her life. Her graduation picture was prominently hanging in the living room’s unpainted gray cement wall. She ordered to have it framed, and I was told she hung it there herself. It was the only notable decoration in the entire house.

The photograph was a selenium-toned silver gelatin print on a thick photo paper, framed in plain, polished, dark heavy wood. It was obvious to me that the picture was already a blown-up replica. I have not seen the original print from which it was reproduced.

Every time I visited my grandmother in her unfinished house, I would inevitably make the grand gesture of slowly and deliberately walking up to the wall with her picture, taking a very long time to inspect every square inch of it, much like looking at a painting in a museum. I would also take the time to make other gestures like putting my hands at my back as I peer closely, or crossing arms to my chest as I move back to get a general look. Of course, I was putting on a show for my grandmother. I know she was watching me every time I do that. After some time, I would turn around and look at her, and we’d smile without saying a word. It was a ritual of sorts between us. I know she gets a thrill every time!

When my grandmother died, it was in that house that I got started on my photography career. I set up a make-shift photo studio in the living room with her framed blown-up graduation picture on the wall presiding over my photo shoots.

The very first photo shoot I did in that living room was for an ad of ladies shoes. Taking pictures of shoes might have seemed frivolous to my austere grandmother, who, as far as I know, never cared much for the vagaries of expensive, branded fashion. She was an expert dressmaker and was particularly skilled with the sewing machine. She went on to sew many of her own clothes and other stuff, and she would have probably made her own shoes if she knew how to.

I do not know the name of the photographer or the name of the studio that shot my grandmother’s graduation photograph. I wish I do. The style of formal graduation portraiture of that time is virtually indistinguishable from one portrait studio to the next. It would be quite a challenge to ascertain if was done at one of the small, enterprising portrait shops within the vicinity of the school she attended, or if it was done at one of the lavishly appointed studios in nearby Taft Avenue where many prominent photo studios of the day were located.

In general, photographic prints from that era were either gold- or silver-stamped with the studio’s name on either the lower left-hand or lower right-hand corner of the picture. Stamping was a common practice then, the height of branding of the time, a point of pride that it was photographed at this or that studio. Without that marking, it is difficult to determine which studio made it.

From a reproduction of maybe an original wallet or album print, the stamping was most likely cropped out or “brushed out” by the photo studio that reprinted the blown-up copy, most likely for “aesthetic” purposes, as the practice of stamping has waned and became passé.

It would be years, and now living in America, before I would see my grandmother’s graduation portrait again.

My family migrated to the United States, and when my mother went back to the Philippines for a visit, she made sure to drop by the now unoccupied, already weather-beaten, still unfinished, Kamuning house. Mainly from neglect, and with year after year of unforgiving monsoon season, rain water has seeped through the walls, badly damaging the framed photograph, among many things inside the house. Visible streaks of dried water left its mark. There were several spots of obvious discoloration across the print’s surface. And there were also tiny holes from the infestation of small insects.

To add to its sorry state, when my mother asked that the picture be taken down and removed from the rotting wood frame in order to salvage the print, parts of the paper’s edges was stuck to the framing material, tearing significant portions.

My mother brought the ruined print with her when she returned to the United States. Whatever was left of the picture, it can mostly be attributed to the preservative powers of the thick photo paper on which the image was printed, the silver gelatin printing process, as well as the selenium toning.

My mother showed it to me, brittle and crumbly, and asked if I can restore the photo. I said I will. It took me some time to get to it, but get to it I finally did.

I began the photo restoration process by thoroughly inspecting and assessing the entire surface of the damaged print. I noticed that the print lacked general edge sharpness. It is possible that the combination of blowing up an image from a small print, as well as the technical limitations in resolving a large photo reproduction, gave it its general soft focus. No doubt, the original print from where this was copied would have been far more sharp. From a distance, the softness would be hardly noticeable, but viewing it closely, the softness was quite obvious. Still, I know there’s a lot more detail that I can work with from the image.

The first step I took in the photo restoration project was to digitally reproduce the image in high-resolution RAW format. I set it up for copy, using color-correct lighting, with right in-camera settings, and accurate focal plane. The exacting studio copy work produced several Nikon professional RAW image files in varying exposures. My goal was to get, and hopefully recover, as much detail as I can from the print. The exacting perfect high-resolution digital copies as a first step will hopefully give me room to maneuver during the detailed post-production process.

To prevent further deterioration, I stored the original print in an archival flat envelope, sandwiched between acid-free sheets of paper.

I brought my copy work for file management into Adobe’s Lightroom. From there, I selected one perfectly exposed image and brought it to Photoshop for detailed editing and image restoration work.

In Photoshop, I carefully fixed, and in certain cases, artfully and imaginatively filled in the details that were lost. I used a Wacom pen and tablet to help me do the job in recreating details as accurately and as believable as possible. From a magnification view of 200 percent, I then removed the stains and grime and marks, then restoring the spots of discoloration. This step was laborious and required extraordinarily detailed attention. Because it was largely a trial-and-error process, it proved to be really time-consuming, especially in the many areas where the print was torn, damaged or totally washed out.

Once detailed work on the image was completed, I brought it back to Lightroom for a final set of adjustments and refinements. This is when I worked on sharpening, tone corrections, light and shadow balance, contrast and clarity. This is a careful, calibrated work designed to bring out, and in most cases, possibly regain, as much detail as possible from the digital RAW file, while at the same time, enhancing and freshening the image.

The whole process took hours and hours of work.

As I look at the finished, restored image, I wonder what my grandmother Imelda would have thought. It probably cost her a lot of money to have the photograph taken, to then to have it blown up, printed and framed. It must have been a luxury to her. She must have spent great care in getting ready for the shoot, treating the event more gravely than we do today. And making sure that the print lives on by having it reproduced, blown-up, reprinted and framed. It’s clear to me that the picture was important to her.

My grandmother was stingy with her praise and approval. Her whole life, she’s been the type who’s singularly driven to excel and to improve her lot and to better the lives of her children. Without saying anything, she would have simply smiled, give me a couple of pats, and rub me in the back for a job well done.

I did not tell my mother that I was working on the photo restoration. One afternoon, I surprised her with a copy of the final, restored work.  And just like what I thought my grandmother would have done, cut from the same cloth as it were, she simply smiled, gave me a couple of pats, and rubbed me in the back.

With the completed digital photo restoration project, I can now share the final high-resolution file with members of my family, and they can have as many copies of pristine photo prints in whatever size they want—to put in wallets or family albums, to frame and display on side tables or hang in walls. And, to even just keep a digital copy in their desktops and laptops, or mobile devices.

At an upcoming family get-together, I will show my grandmother’s restored graduation photo to two of her great-grandchildren who were born in the United States more than 20 years after she died. They are some of the youngest in our clan, my nephew and niece, William and Samantha, ages 10 and 6. When I show them this picture, I’ll tell them something a bit about their great grandmother.

As Imelda’s picture takes on a new life, lovingly restored in this digital day and age, her memory lives on in our family’s minds and hearts.