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Operation Photo Rescue restores storm-damaged pictures - free

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Four grandchildren, in a photo that suffered only mild water damage. It will be fixed.

After people’s homes were devastated by Superstorm Sandy, often they needed new boilers, or roofs, or drywall. They couldn’t rebuild without those things, and they couldn’t live without them.

But there is very little sentiment attached to a boiler, or a roof, or drywall. They are interchangeable functional objects.

Photographs, though – that’s something else entirely.

Many people lost the records of their lives, and of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives as well. Floodwaters took black and white photos and left them sodden masses of brown; color pictures often turned into a bright swirl of indecipherable color.

Photographs are not necessary, the way boilers or roofs or drywall are, but when they are destroyed people feel less whole.

My parents live in Oceanside, on Long Island’s south shore, just a few miles from the beach. When the storm hit, the ocean surged up Long Beach Road and almost filled their basement. Everything in it was destroyed. They replaced the boiler and the drywall (their roof was fine), but they simply piled the ruined pictures in a heap and left them sitting. It was too dispiriting to look at them, but it was somehow too disloyal, too much like giving up, to throw them away.

There might be something more symbolic than a damaged picture left to rot, but it’s hard to come up with it.

And then, help! From Kansas, of all places.

My mother read an article in Newsday, Long Island’s only remaining daily, about Operation Photo Rescue. It’s a group that uses pretty amazing technology, combined with highly skilled volunteers’ experience and instinct, to restore ruined photographs.

And it is free. These volunteers offer their service out of a combination of basic goodness and the excitement of the technical challenges the work provides.

The group was begun to help fix some of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina in 2005; its founders recognized that they could help rebuild people’s lives through their combination of technology and art. There have been a great many floods in recent years, and not only the coasts are vulnerable. Rivers have overflowed their banks, demolished levees, and ruined the towns built up alongside them with depressing regularity, even as politicians argue about climate change. There is a real emotional and psychological need for the services offered by Operation Photo Rescue.

People can bring the group up to 20 storm-damaged photos. Those originals are photographed and returned within an hour or so; the copied images, carefully made with high-end equipment (in New York, it was done with a hugely expensive machine lent to Operation Photo Rescue by the Metropolitan Museum of Art), are put in virtual folders, where volunteers, who could be anyplace in real life, take them out and fix them. There is no risk to the originals, which are back safely in their owners’ hands.

Margie Hayes, now the organization’s president, had been a technical writer before she was displaced in the economic turmoil of 2008. She’d always been fascinated by art, so she retrained as a graphic artist.

We met her on Sunday at the School for Visual Arts in the Flatiron neighborhood, surrounded by art supply stores and precious artisanal coffee shops. The volunteers wore white gloves to handle the photographs, probably both because they didn’t want to cause them any further harm and because they didn’t want to come into contact with mold. (My parents had left the photographs to dry under glass, which is not ideal, I learned later; it kept them from tearing, but it caused some of the pigment to stick. If your photographs get wet, you should remove them carefully from their frames while they still are wet and put them carefully on a towel to dry.)

Hayes, an open and cheerful woman, is from Kansas. This was her first trip to New York; she was there from Friday until Monday, and could spare time to see almost nothing. (I was able to take out my iPad to show her Madison Square Park and the improbable glory of the Flatiron Building; they were close enough that I hope she managed to see them.) She was doing intake, assessing the photos and explaining the system. She rejected one of ours, a rectangle that eventually we realized was Andy and my wedding picture. Andy’s Moroccan kippah was vaguely visible at the top, and my white dress a blur of slightly lighter color. There wasn’t enough detail left for anyone to work with, she said.

But the others all could be fixed. They were pocked and puckered but technique, knowledge, and imagination will save them.

Soon – she couldn’t say when – we will get an envelope with hard copy prints, and we will drive them back out to Long Island and present them to my parents. Another part of their lives will have been restored.

Thank you, Operation Photo Rescue.

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