Technology Can Reveal Hidden Photo Treasures

Don’t throw that old photo or slide away just yet!

By Eric Peterschmidt

Do you have some vintage family photos that you just cannot figure out? Who are those people? Where was it taken? When was it taken? What is going on? It used to be that, if you did not know, then forget it! You may as well throw those photos away. But times are different, and I beg you please do not throw those photos away!

My dad was an amateur photographer. Unlike the digital photos of today, every photo he took was with film. He had his own darkroom, used totally manual cameras (some of which required him to use a separate light meter) and he took incredible photos. I learned so much from him just through observation.

I too am an amateur photographer. In my early days, my dad would observe me in my hobby and would not hesitate to offer suggestions. For example, “Always put someone you know in the photo. Otherwise, it just looks like a photo you bought at the drug store” (back when drug stores sold pre-exposed slides of far-away places – remember that?). That was one suggestion I use to this day.

He also told me told me to “just throw that away” when I showed him a bad photo. To him, a “bad photo” was defined as one that was out of focus, exposed poorly, had eyes closed, someone taking a big bite of food with a gaping mouth, or is maybe just boring. I was always a little surprised to hear him say that. I guess I understood why he would say that, but it was so against every grain of who I am to actually throw a photo away (if you recall from a previous post, some might consider me a family history hoarder!!). Unlike his previous suggestion example, this one I never did follow. 

So that was back in the 1970s and 80s and time marched on. My parents passed in the 1980s so his best practice considerations are still with me in memory only. I continued to hold on to all photos, using the excuse that “you never know – it could be that someday I am looking for a photo of one of the people, or of an heirloom or the old family car – any of which just happens to be in the background of one of those photos. And that has certainly turned out to be true, as there are many, many such instances where that has happened. But more recently, what I have found to be amazing, is what today’s technology can do to allow certain kinds of “bad” photos to tell their hidden story.

Here are 3 examples of what I am talking about – and you can do these too!

Dark slides.

I took mostly slides over the years. Sometimes, generally due to error on my part, a number of photos on one roll would not come out. With film, there was of course no digital screen to look at after each shot to see if it worked. You just hope you did it right and wait several weeks before you know how it turned out. Often those mistakes would leave black slides because they were underexposed. A box of slides I was recently scanning had a series of about 10 dark slides that I had no idea what they were. Even though, back in the 70s, I very clearly heard my dad’s voice telling me in no uncertain terms, to “throw those slides away”, I fortunately, did not.

What is amazing about scanning photos is that once you have a digital file, you can now adjust it with photo editing tools – and you don’t have to be an expert to do that (I used ThumbsPlus software, but most any editing software will work). In this case, since they were dark, I started “lightening” them up, over and over and lo and behold, images started to appear. I could see it was a high school band concert.

At that time, my two younger brothers were both in their high school band. One slide in particular was very interesting as it showed one brother standing in front of the band receiving an award from the band director. Not knowing what this was, I shared this with my siblings – including my brother (I used TightKnit to share the photos with family). He immediately recognized it and in his normal non-boastful low-key manner, he explained that it was an award he received, and he never saw a photo of it. After further prompting, it turns out that the director had never given out this award before – and in fact created it for him! Essentially a musician of the year award – and we had it captured! A big day indeed for the family!

“Invisible” writing on the back of paper photos

Those of us who have inherited photos from previous generations are so thankful to find writing on the back – generally indicating that someone of knowledge recorded something about that image. Could be who, what, where, when and sometimes even why!

I had recently scanned and shared a series of photos with a newly found 2nd cousin (see my post on what to do after a DNA test introduces you to a distant relative). She is a genealogist and looks at things with a critical and curious eye. I had included the backs of the photos, since most had a number or a photographer marking, and I routinely include the backs if there are any markings at all. She questioned one photo – of a toddler standing by a chair.

She saw something I did not see — and asked “what is that writing on the back? Could you see if you can enhance it to bring it out?” I personally could not see any writing (blame it on my aging eyes!!). However, once again, since it was digital, tools can be used to bring out hidden details (again, I used ThumbsPlus). By playing with the lightness and contrast, the writing popped out! Written on the back was the person’s first and last name, the age (one year) and the date (April 1937). That gave my cousin all the information she needed and, as it turned out, the photo was of her cousin!







Google as a research tool

Solving the mystery of a photo often requires looking at anything in the photo that provide clues to what it is. For example, age of car or license plates on those cars, clothing styles, or even familiar architecture and scenery. In fact, there is a cottage industry out there of people who just love to “solve” the puzzles of old photos as they love the challenge.

Recently, a cousin was looking at some photos my dad took of my mom and dad taking a trip to Europe in 1950. My dad took a number of pictures of their multi-country tour, some of which had recognizable features (for example, a Volkswagen in Germany, Big Ben in London). Several, however, left us scratching our heads. There was this interesting photo of my mom walking along a square in what looked like a significant city (note my dad was following his rule by including someone in the photo!!). What caught my cousin’s eye was business signage on the buildings. So, he pulled out Google and started with one of the names: Anton Linnet.

Within a matter of a few clicks, he found photos of what looked like the same building from the 1950s and that building was in Copenhagen, Denmark! He did not stop there, as he was curious if the building is still there, so using his computer (using Google Maps and Google Street View) he found the building and it still exists – largely unchanged! This is really something that is crazy amazing with today’s technology – that he was able to see, without leaving his home, where the photo was taken, what that building was like not only in 1950, but what it looks like today. It is so incredible what we have at our finger tips.

Do you have old photos that you would like to know more about? Finding out may not be as difficult as you think. There is no silver bullet method, but instead, many techniques exist to help solve the puzzle – a few were demonstrated here. But remember, that tools represent only some of the arrows in your quiver. The shared knowledge of people coming together can really be the secret sauce to unveil those hidden stories. Doing so is not only fun, but it is extremely rewarding. If you don’t do it? Well then, one thing you can be certain of is that those photos someday will be thrown away. Don’t let that happen!

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