Old photos, lively spirits

I have spent the past week sorting, scanning, labeling, and gently restoring old family photos. Like “The Velveteen Rabbit,” they are creased and faded and scuffed, but the very fact that they have been preserved over the decades is testament to their strong spirit. How many old photos get lost or discarded over the years? Like old books and postcards, some refuse to be tossed away. They travel.

The ending of “The Velveteen Rabbit” always disturbed me. The reward for persisting as a nursery toy is being turned into a “real” bunny? But maybe I’m working the same mixed magic as I scan them into digital form, clean up the most distracting damage in Photoshop, and release them back into the world as something cleaned up and super-sized.

And so it goes.

Meanwhile, I have the privilege of letting them tell me their stories. For example…

This tiny photo, about 2.5 inches square was taped to the memorial card of my great aunt Ellen Dunne Price, who emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in 1907. It is my great-grandfather Michael Dunne (1864-1942), farmer and father of nine. I guess her sister Bridget (my grandmother) found it among Ellen’s effects when she died in 1967. Bridget taped it to the holy card and put it in a small envelope with an inscription.

Michael Dunne, battered original
Written on the envelope by Bridget Dunne Price

The photo is printed on thin paper with a matte surface typical of the very early 20th century. Maybe Ellen brought it with her from home or someone sent it to her during those early years in St. Louis.

The tape will ultimately destroy the rare old photo, so I set about to work some magic.

From “The Velveteen Rabbit”: “You were Real to the Boy,” the Fairy said, “because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one.” This photo was treasured by Ellen, preserved with a message by Bridget, passed to Bridget’s son Jack, kept by his wife Lorraine after he died, and safeguarded by my cousin Jackie after her mother died. Now I get to play the fairy and make Michael Dunne and his wild ass real for everyone.

Michael Dunne, after some gentle restoration

Old photos that have survived over decades are warm and spirited. Digital versions lose some of that, but the techie process keeps the image moving, out into the world, to be honored by a new generation.

Not a bad way to spend the week. Wine poured.

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