Kathryn Rutherford Blog Header

Kathryn Rutherford Blog Header

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lost Grandmother

"People who don't cherish their elderly have forgotten
whence they came and whither they go."
Ramsey Clark
     In the late 1980’s I was exhibiting my fine art and restoration services at a conservation conference in Baltimore, Maryland when a lady entered my booth clutching a blackened piece of bent and rusted metal.  What used to be a treasured image of a female had been reduced, over the years, to a ghostly silhouette highlighted by gold leaf paint over earrings, a broach and a ring. On the back of the metal was etched the date December 1877.
     Having taken the tintype to several other conservators who claimed nothing could be done to bring back the image of this important ancestor, the woman had been referred to me. Because of my fine art and portraiture skills the client hoped that, at the very least, I could visualize enough in the aged metal to draw or paint a portrait of the woman. The family desperately wanted to see what this woman looked like.
     It seemed that the woman in the photograph passed away in 1923 leaving fourteen children. The youngest of these children was my client’s father who would turn eighty years old on his upcoming birthday. Because of the span of years between children and the early century death, no one currently alive had ever seen their Grandmother. This was the only known photograph of her and it was very important to the family to know what she looked like and what the photograph could tell.
     I asked the woman to leave the tintype with me so I could return to my studio and further investigate options and costs. If she were patient I just might have some ideas.
     A tintype, also called a ferrotype, is a photograph made by creating a direct positive on a sheet of iron metal that has been blackened by paint, lacquer or enamel. No tin in a tintype, but this blackened metal was then coated with a photographic emulsion, placed inside a camera and exposed to light through a lens that would capture a direct image in the silver particles in the emulsion.
     Over time our tintype had been rubbed, scratched and rusted. The right wrist area of the woman was all of the original emulsion left on the surface. Only a latent image remained to be seen in the metal.
     At some point it appeared someone had tried to clean the surface and used a harsh chemical that had dissolved the surface in the process leaving several areas that exposed the bottom black layer of paint. “Above all, do no harm” is a conservator’s mantra, but something not always practiced by well-meaning, but unskilled laymen.
     I prefer not to divulge the process which I developed to bring back this, and other, darkened images, but suffice to say I was able to photograph the metal in a liquid solution that allowed me to focus on the embedded image in the metal rather its surface. Processing the film and dramatically filtering the resulting negatives, I was able to produce a print which could now be restored to its original captured condition. I wouldn’t put the final product on metal, but would be able to supply the family with aged looking fiber base, toned duplicated prints.
     What an exceptional treasure this project turned out to be for more reasons than one.
     Look closely at the images shown above and you will see some definite genealogical features and..... one of the ugliest crocheted neck scarves I have ever come across!
     When I phoned the client to report on the success of pulling a rescued image, I was concerned about the size and manliness of the subject’s hands as well as the proportion and length of the female's torso. My client was shocked that I should question family anatomy.
     She assured me her female family members were not known for dainty traits. Apparently, the eldest daughter of our subject was the first female butcher on the East Coast of the United States during the early 1800’s. Score one for womanhood!!
     Restoration on a work print proceeded by bleaching darkened areas, darkening overexposed details and airbrushing missing pieces of clothing, hair and background. Finally, our lost Grandmother appeared before my eyes. How happy my client would be when I returned an original photographic image to her family history instead of a painted interpretation.
     My client and her entire family were indeed overjoyed. I received a phone call of thanks and gratitude and learned that the restored photograph had arrived just in time to be presented at the recent birthday party. Remember, our lost Grandmother’s youngest child was turning eighty and was the father of my client.
     Not only had a Mother been returned to her Son, but a Grandmother, Aunt and Great Aunt was returned to a family who could not track their photographic history back farther than two generations.
     What really amazed the family was that there were three living female relatives who were exact images of their long since gone relation. Without this restoration, and my ability to present it, no one would have ever seen family resemblances or genetic traits. At the very least it answered the question of where the size and manly features were passed down through generations. It didn’t come from male ancestors it was passed down through females.
     An additional joy on this project came when I entered the work into the Professional Photographers of America annual competition where the world’s finest photographic and artisan images compete for international award and acclaim. Unbeknown to me, my restored Grandmother was submitted for consideration for an outstanding award.
     Traditionally presented to a professional photographer for photographic excellence, the Fuji Masterpiece Award, presented by the Fuji Photo Corporation, is the highest honor given within the photographic industry.
Recognizing an important contribution to the photographic industry, the Fuji Photo Corporation broke with tradition and, for the first time, the Masterpiece Award was presented to an artisan and a process rather than to a photographer taking an image.
     It is overwhelmingly heartfelt to accept thanks and praises from individuals who cherish my talents and work, but what an honor to be recognized by one of the top Corporations for work I do quietly and alone in the privacy of my studio. The Heirloom Art Studio continues to Bring Back Memories of Another Time.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Living History

“History never looks like history when you are living through it.”
John W. Gardner

      Our first tale concerns the oldest photograph ever brought to the Heirloom Art Studio, my fine art and restoration studio.
      A customer had phoned stating she had a tintype photograph in her possession that had rusted and required some restoration services.  At the appointed hour of her appointment, the woman arrived with nothing apparent in her hands.  Following introductions, she reached into her purse and produced a plastic diaper bundle which she began to unfold.  She grasped the contents between her fingers as if she were dealing cards and thrust the image toward me. 
      One look at the precious image and I felt faint.  My knees buckled as I had her place the piece of metal across my outstretched palm.
      I peered down at something I had, until that time, only read about in books.  Written descriptions about the earliest photograph produced on small sterling silver plates with mirrored images that flip from positive to negative is inconceivable until one is actually confronted with the real thing. 
      In my hand I held a piece of history.  It wasn’t a tintype, a commonly mislabeled piece of japanned iron dating between 1853 and later.  In front of me I held a Daguerreotype, a photographic image first produced in 1839, but not commonly appearing until the mid to late 1840’s. 
      Forever captured in the delicate silver mirrored tones of black and plum and peering out at me was the soft image of a motherly woman approaching, or already in, her eightieth years.  Fast calculations in my head made a quick determination that I was beholding a person from Colonial time.  I was holding an image of my customer’s Great-Great Grandmother!
      The surface of the sterling plate showed the telltale markings of oxidation, commonly known as tarnish.  Where the varnished surface had come into contact with the air tarnish had appeared most prevalently in an oval shape where a brass mat should have been.  My customer’s image was not rusted, merely tarnished naturally over time.
      Regaining my composure I proceeded to explain to my customer what she had in her possession.  The disappointing news was that previous efforts to remove the tarnish through an electrolytic process had just been declared disastrous by the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  Previous methods to treat Daguerreotypes were now showing signs of newly created damage. Until further notice there were no approved methods to treat these images except to protect their delicate surface from harm.
      I was about to make recommendations when my customer sheepishly admitted she had taken the photograph out of its frame before bringing it to me.  Perhaps, she suggested, she should retrieve the framing materials and have me reassemble the works using archival methods.  I agreed this would be in the best interest of preserving the image for future years.         A photograph from this time period should have been inside a hinged book-like cover encased by a thin bezel of decorative brass in a sandwich of a decoratively etched brass mat, piece of glass and taped edges intended to keep oxygen from reaching the photographic image on the sterling plate.  You’ve all seen these photographic cases in romantic and sentimental movie scenes where characters gaze upon the faces of their loved ones.   
      I placed the historic image out of harms way and waited for the customer to return with what I expected would be a small handful of framing materials. 
      My second shock of the day came when my customer returned and required assistance getting an over-sized shadow box, glass and framing materials into the Studio and safely placed upon my work table. 
      She had not only inexpertly disassembled the Daguerreotype’s individual case, thus endangering the photograph’s surface, but had broken into a shadow box that was created and sealed in 1895 and contained an historical essay about items of historical interest.
      The shadow box contained a paper fan with a circular lithographed print of toga-clad woman lounging in an outdoor scene.  On either side of the print was hand painted embellishments of ribbons, bows and flowers. 
      It was customary for every young woman of culture to possess a fan and to personalize them with hand painted decorations, but the written account and my customer’s story were nothing short of breathtaking. The account written in the framing materials is as follows:

      “This fan was used by my Grandmother, Susannah McGill, when a child of nine, to fan
      her father, Sargeant Henry Hypp, who fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill, while fighting in
      the British ranks June 17th, 1775 but who lived for two days and was buried on Boston
      He was attached to the 43rd Regiment and was one of the soldiers who climbed the
      Heights of Abraham under Gen. Wolfe in 1759.
      Grandmother died in 1856_____F.M. Lewis 1895.”

      Take a breath!!!!

      What my customer did not know was that in times gone by it was popular to pack a picnic lunch, head to a vantage point and......watch the war.  The British were known to stop battles in Canada and break for tea with both sides then resume their fighting.  War was civilized at least it was until the American Civil War.  While crowds sat in buggies and picnicked on the grounds to watch the war, Southern Soldiers broke through the Northern lines and forced their way toward Washington, DC, in a direct path of the spectators.  Panic and riot ensued as the civilians desperately tried to return to the safety of their homes and away from the approaching danger.  Never again was the public so naive as to consider war a spectator sport.
      Things were different, though, in 1775.  During the fight for American Independence from Britain our female subject sat and watched her British soldier father fight the Americans and become mortally wounded.
      Our tiny photograph of a diminutive woman was of a once living person born in 1766, and only nine years old when she held her dying father’s head in her lap and fanned his face. 
      History never looks like history when you are living through it, says our quote, yet, here was a recorded account, artifacts and an authentic image of truth and reality.  Real people, real lives with a real history. 
      Using proper archival methods and materials I cleaned the shadow box and its historic contents, repackaged the Daguerreotype and sealed it all in the aged frame to preserve it for the future. 
      The oldest photograph I had ever handled to date had brought back a small piece of another time and Susannah McGill continues to live in image and memory.


      "Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end:  then stop"
Said the King to the White Rabbit
Lewis Carroll-Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

      When the marketing experts began touting the praises of Blogging I not only wondered how I was possibly going to fit this task into my already overloaded schedule, but could not figure what on Earth I was going to say that would be of interest to readers.
      Blogging seemed synonymous with “Bleah, Bleah, Bleah”.  If I were going to post Blogs what direction of thoughts would I write?  What would be so compelling as to attract an audience and add something of interest to their lives?  I pondered this thought for weeks until something very profound happened.
      On an unscheduled evening, a treasured friend phoned to bring our acquaintance up to date.  Since she and I are somewhat collaborating on international genealogical projects, we quickly brought the family news up to date then got down to business discussing photographs, archives, historical data and research.
      Excitement and electricity reigned supreme as it usually does when my friend and I are engrossed in conversation.  Put the two of us together and our husbands usually run exhausted from the room.  My daughter says we are the only two people she knows that can converse for hours of time and still have to email each other because some subject was omitted.  So it was with this day’s contact.
      That night I slept soundly but awoke far too early.  My mind began to wander from one thought to another.  It didn’t take long to begin reviewing the earlier conversation I’d had with my friend.
      The sun was just beginning to rise when it literally “dawned” on me that I had suddenly found the subject matter for this Blog. 
      Where my personal life dedicates a great deal of time to my own family history research, my business revolves around the photographic images and lives of my customers and their ancestors.  I am a professional fine artist, photographic conservator and restoration artisan. Day in and day out I retouch, restore, enhance and duplicate treasured images of other people and their past. 
      Where passion is the current word of choice to describe one’s desire, I prefer to consider my work electrifying.  Every photograph that comes into the Studio has a story to tell, a mystery to solve and a myriad of questions to resolve.  Owners in possession of photographs handed down through generations tend to have little knowledge of an image’s date, origin, construction and often subject matter.  Some images are so faded or deteriorated the average person cannot make sense of the jigsaw puzzle effect of the broken pieces still remaining.  They certainly have no concept of the level of skills required, skills I possess, which will bring back and preserve their family history for future generations.
      With this thought, it comes to light that over the past thirty years I have seen some of the most beautiful photographs and handled some of the most neglected and damaged.  With each treasured image there is a story whether it is an investigation into methods of reproduction and restoration, an historical search of setting, clothing and image details or an attempt to pinpoint the genealogy of those peering out at the viewer forever frozen in time.
      Throughout this Blog I will bring you some of the more exciting tales and images surrounding my work.  Where to begin was not a question.  Like the King said to the White Rabbit in Alice and Wonderland, we will begin at the beginning and go until we come to the end. 
      The most obvious choice for the first story concerns the oldest photograph ever brought to the Studio.  We will begin with the start of photographic history and, in fact, the early history of the New World, and move through time and generations of fascinating people, places and events.
      I would very much like to thank my dear friend, Henrietta, for sharing my unending enthusiasm for historical and genealogical research and investigation.  Special thanks for all of our conversations each of which re-energizes my unending excitement and focus.  Thank you, my friend, for phoning and this time reminding me why the sun rises in the morning.
      Sit back, grab another cup of coffee or make a lovely cup of tea and read on.  We are about to take a journey that will................Bring Back Memories of Another Time.