This blog is about Graphic Design, Vector Art, and Cartoon Illustration

Finding, identifying, and optimizing old photos of Phoenix

As a Graphic Designer, and Photoshop guy, I like doing digital restorations. I've done it for money, but mostly I do it nowadays just for fun. And mostly I do it with old photos of Phoenix, Arizona.

It all started long ago when I was saddened to see old photos on their way to the dumpster in 1993 when I was working for Bank One (which was originally Valley Bank, and is now Chase Bank). The old photos had value at one time, as publicity photos, but they were essentially worthless decades later and were just taking up room in the storage area of the Marketing Department, so they were to be thrown away. I asked for them, and put them in my garage. And for years and years they sat there, until I thought it would be fun to scan them in.

I now have a collection of thousands of these images, but they're aren't in my garage - they aren't paper, they're digital. I save them with the best file names that I can think of, which includes the location and the date. I will often include "looking north" in the file name, and if I find an error, I update the file name. The files names look something like this: Washington_2nd_Street_looking_west_1943.jpg And I save the files as jpegs with a 2048 maximum pixel width (that number comes from the maximum pixel width that is allowable for free storage on Google photos, although that really doesn't matter anymore). And the size is fine, plenty big, and if I want to save a photo in higher resolution, I have a folder that's named super_high_res. I have some images saved in an even higher resolution, which I call Super_Dooper_High_Res. Well, you have to call it something.

I do a lot of careful research, and I have friends who help me (I call them Phoenix History Detectives - PhDs) and I post the photo along with the most accurate and confident description that I can, on Facebook. I started on the social media site Google+ and from there I learned to encourage the correct type of comments, and see if I can avoid having people write stupid and pointless comments (such is the nature of social media). By the way, the people that I can't quite get to help me before I post are usually happy to help me afterwards, by pointing out, for example, that Mill Avenue is in Tempe, not Phoenix. This is something that I learned a LONG time ago, doing Graphic Design for print, that a lot of people who have no interest in proof-reading before something goes to print will absolutely fall all over themselves to point of errors after something has been printed. Luckily, the internet isn't print, and I can update the captions, and my file names. I like that. In print, errors are forever, on the web you can update.

The process of Digital Restoration, or photo optimization, starts with finding images that are as high quality as possible. If something has been scanned in in low resolution, unfortunately there's nothing I can do. In movies, someone usually shouts "enhance" and suddenly a low-res image becomes high-res, but in the real world, that's not how it works. If the pixels aren't there, they just aren't there. When you enlarge it, all you will get is a blurry, jagged image.

To me, the most precious thing is when I can find an old photo that someone has, that maybe has been sitting in a garage, waiting to be thrown away when the house is sold. There are a lot of people "of age" who have precious images that their children and grandchildren will have no desire to keep, or store. If something can be digitized (scanned) and shared, it can never be thrown into the dumpster, never fade away, never get chewed up by a dog. So I love it when people trust me to scan in their old photos of Phoenix and share them. I'm doing this for fun, and I'm having a LOT of fun!

Image at the top of this post: Looking south at downtown Phoenix in the 1940s. Original photo rescued from the dumpster on the 31st floor of the Bank One Building. Digitized and now available for free on Facebook, where it will never be thrown away. Please share.