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Photo restorer revives vitality of region’s bygone era

By Camille Dupire - Sep 28,2017 - Last updated at Sep 28,2017

The original copy of the Dome of the Rock interior roof design, which compiles nine negative scans from the turn of the last century (Photo courtesy of Kelvin Bown)

AMMAN — “My work consists of breathing life into old photos,” said Kelvin Bown, a specialist in historical photography restoration.

“Fertile Crescent 2”, his latest exhibition, which is currently running at Amman’s Jasmine House, under the patronage of Tourism Minister Lina Annab, displays individually restored photographs of the region.

The exhibition encompasses the areas of modern-day Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, known in modern history as “the Fertile Crescent”, providing a human-scale picture of its ancient era.

“My work involves the application of a wide array of modern digital photo techniques to the earliest surviving original materials, in order to bring them to life, aiming to show as much as possible what the original photographers saw with their eyes and aimed to capture,” the photo restoration artist told The Jordan Times.

His ultimate purpose is “to get the results the earliest photographers would have liked to get, had they the means we have today”, he explained, noting that it involves a complex set of restoration techniques to mend the damages of time.

When working on old photographs, Bown has to create a sense of depth and presence, bring out hidden details, and assess how the final overall picture can be the most striking. 

Beyond the technical aspects of digital restoration, one must also pay attention to the most optimal layout for presentation, through the best suited size and paper type for each image, in order to provide the most accurate presentation of what the photographer sought to capture.

For the artist, the photographs provide “a more human and grounded reality” of the past, away from historical and political connivances; not only do the viewers learn more about the people portrayed in the pictures, he said, they also understand the thoughts of the person behind the lens.

“Fertile Crescent 2” aims to “show a time of possibly more peace, coexistence, and harmony with the environment to remind and encourage appreciation of the ways the former generations lived”, Bown explained, adding, “the pictures show a time when different religions lived alongside each other without political issues and divisions or where there were very often traditional ways of discussing and solving issues between different sections of the society”.

When asked why he had sustained an interest in photo restoration after all these years, the artist explained: “I have had exhibitions where people would come and show me where their family house was, describe how their parents and families used to live. It gives another view than reading history books, which can often report the past in a biased way.”

“Being able to bring out such pictures can serve as a reminder of the ways of life from before, how things were done,” he continued, adding “I think it is crucial not to lose this knowledge, as it carries a strong connection to the roots and values which have supported people for so long.”

He also explained the “lengthy process” of selecting and restoring each image, but said it is “worth the while” citing the “titanic workload” behooved by the two-month long restoration of the iconic “Dome of the Rock Roof Interior” picture as a recognition of Jordan’s custodianship of holy sites in Jerusalem.

 

The work entailed by the “Amman Panorama” — a panoramic image compiled from four original photos showing the entire town from 1940 — also gave Bown a tremendous satisfaction of giving back its glory to an “area which has now been so adversely affected by external forces” and of “showing a little of the richness of culture and diversity that existed before”.

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