Bringing old photos back to life

Photographer and photo restorer Jeff Ryan has been called “an artist without pretense.”

More and more people are keen to learn about their family history. Describing the pursuit as “an absorbing, lifelong pastime,” a story by John Blackwell and Laurie Stanley in The Canadian Encyclopedia puts it this way: “Although detective skills and patience are often tested, the curious and imaginative genealogist is seldom disappointed. Along the way each family historian acquires a personal link with the past and a greater sense of self-identity.” That’s why old family photographs are so treasured. They offer a compelling glimpse of an earlier time and of the relatives who came before you.

But old photos are just that: Old. What you can see, appreciate and contemplate comes down to the state they’re in. The portrait from 1896 may be marred by a long-ago stain, while the 1920s wedding shot might be discoloured and faded. No wonder so many folks look to experts like Jeff Ryan to bring photos back to life.

The longtime photographer, visual arts instructor and owner of Jeff Ryan Photography/Ryan Studio Ottawa has particular expertise in photo restoration and clients are effusive in their praise of his skills. Greg Kane calls Jeff “an artist without pretense,” while a patron named Monica calls his attention to detail in restoring her heavily damaged, old family photographs “extraordinary.” In her words, “His interest in his work makes the results truly exceptional and of great help to preserve cherished family memories and personal histories.”

He’s been at it for a long time. “I became interested in photo retouching many years ago, in the late 1970s, when I started printing my own black and white imagery,” Jeff recalls. Work at three different commercial photography studios led him to honing skills in hand airbrushing and spotting (retouching) of originals. “Today,” he points out, “all my retouching is created on the computer with very sophisticated computer enhancement programs.”

The results are impressive. And heartwarming. Tears, holes, stains, creases, discolouration—whatever the issue, this specialist employs his considerable skills, decades of experience and high-end devices to do a meticulous restoration. Photos he’s transformed have dated as far back as the 1850s, although he mentions, “I also offer professional retouching services for today’s clientele, regarding all aspects of photography.”

Whatever the vintage, images arrive in many formats, including printed photos, colour slides, transparencies, tintypes and more. Often, there’s plenty of damage.  “I frequently have had to reconstruct body parts and other large areas of the original.”

Using a sophisticated retouching device that’s comparable to a paint brush used by an artist, Jeff says, “I quite literally have to draw and shape damaged areas of the originals by hand, varying the intensity of my stroke as well as the size of my brush and it’s density/opacity settings.”

Happily, for people who want to renew such heirlooms or fix any photo, this pro is dedicated to his art. “I have been and always will be a detail-oriented man,” he admits.