Friday, October 10, 2014

Reviving our Ancestors

This is not a blog about my personal Vance genealogy, but I recently tried a nice trick I read about reviving old pictures and I thought I'd share it.

A few years ago I had the luck of meeting a far-off cousin a bazillion times removed who was also researching our common Vance ancestors.   I had dates, wills, and other records to share, but she had something even more exciting - an album of pictures going back to my 3rd-great-grandparents!  Suddenly I had faces for many of the people that I had thought would always be just names on my family tree.  I felt like I had stumbled on to pirate gold.

Photography didn't start becoming widely available in the US until the 1840s, and even then the early daguerreotype and other methods often produced washed-out, blurry black or sepia-toned images that haven't held up well after over 150 years.  Many of the pictures in my exciting new album fit that description, like one of my favorites here of my 3rd-great-grandfather, John Vance:

John Vance (1786-1869)

John Vance was born in county Donegal, Ireland, in 1786 and emigrated at 18 with his parents to Pennsylvania where he became a farmer until his death in 1869.  This picture was undated, but appears to be from around 1860-65 when he was in his 70s.  The picture is actually in pretty good shape, although it's faded and his features and hair are difficult to make out.  But it's still one of my favorite pictures especially because this is my earliest Vance photograph.

Recently someone shared on Facebook a list of famous black-and-white photographs that had been colorized, and I realized the power of using color to bring out detail in old pictures.  Many people have realized that before me, of course, but I started playing with a scanned copy of this favorite picture of mine.

Meet the same John Vance again after some amateur cosmetic computer retouching:

John Vance with added color

I will always like the original, of course, because I completely understand the purists who would say it's the "truest" reflection of the times that John Vance lived in.  And the colorized version isn't perfect, but I think it adds a new dimension - it really brings his portrait "to life", even though I had to guess at some of the colors.

You need a serious graphics package like Photoshop or GIMP to colorize an old picture yourself, but honestly there are many professional photographers or photo restoration websites that could do a much better job than I did with this one.  I just might check out a few.  

So, if you have old black-and-white pictures of your ancestors too, you might consider getting them colorized.  To me it feels like now I have two pictures of my 3rd-great-grandfather where I used to have only one.   And it almost feels like I'm meeting John Vance again for the first time.

Now if I could just get him to share some stories...