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9 May 2017

No one will ever accuse us of writing salacious headlines. We prefer a more subtle approach. "What's that?" you say. "Oh, nothing," we begin. And you know that isn't the half of it.

So an old photo is just where the story begins. And it began a long time ago.


It's a photo of three children at the turn of the 20th century. They seem to be about seven or eight, two and not-quite-one years old. The two oldest are boys. And the oldest is, befitting his rank, wearing a watch.

The middle child is Mom's father. And that's how it came to be in our family. It was tucked away, out of sight, among his old photos.

But these days, Mom has the old print propped up near her computer. So whenever we're working on something with her, we see the three children.

We must have seen that print once when we were young. But maybe not. Now we see it every time we visit.


It's really a very nice contact print with plenty of detail of the three children. There is no better portrait of them, in fact.

So of course we had to copy it to have one for ourselves. We do that. Run across an old photo propped up on a bookshelf or hung in a dark corner and make a quick copy with our iPhone 6 Plus.

We could do better, of course. But when? So we whip out the iPhone and take the shot and it's on its way to Google Photos and Apple Photos.


Portraits of this era were made in the photographer's studio. The professional photographer had a tried and true system that made a contact print with lovely tonality but was often a bit flat, with no true blacks.

These days, though, you can dramatically affect the copied image in post production. And not just dramatically but easily.

We were able to make the ghostly image come alive with just a slightly more contrasty curve and a little magic with the sliders in Camera Raw. The children that had been two dimensional representations of the past suddenly became lively three dimensional portraits of real people.

The Original. Several generations in view. Note the original in its black paper frame.

With Camera Raw's Upright tool we were also able to square the image, removing any distortion our shot had introduced. And Camera Raw knows about the iPhone's wide angle lens, too, so optical distortion was fixed, too.

We also converted it to grayscale, removing a stain, and gave it a slight color tone for depth.

When we finished our edits, we made a dye-sub print on the DNP DS620A here for review.

We liked the result so much, we put the print up on a nearby bookshelf.


Now, when we're stuck on a problem at our desk and need to look away (which happens with alarming frequency these days), we find ourselves gazing at the photo.

And a curious thing happens. It starts to come alive.

It came alive as a sort of puzzle first. We couldn't help wondering when it had been taken. The year, that is.

Sometimes that's on the original print. But often not. We thought we could figure it out.


We knew the family emigrated to America in May of 1906, arriving in San Francisco just days before the great earthquake and fire.

We also knew only two of the children had accompanied their parents. By the time they left, the little girl had died of meningitis.

So it had to be taken before May 1906.

We also knew our grandfather was born early in January 1904. So his little sister could not have been around until, well, no earlier than late in 1904. She's standing in the photo, so she was probably at least six months old. That would mean the photograph was taken in mid to late 1905.

That was our best guess. We're invariably wrong with our best guess but it always gives us a feeling of, oh, infallibility.


But what was her name?

We racked our brains trying to remember. But for years we never even knew she had existed. She was rarely spoken of by my grandfather or his brother.

And even then, shaking their heads as if they could have prevented her death, it made them very sad. It may not have been an accident that they both became pharmacists.

We asked Mom. She said she remembered her grandmother calling her Eleanor.

The children, as far as we knew, were always referred to by their American names, oddly. Louie, John and Eleanor. More likely, though, they were actually named Luigi, Giovanni and Eleanora. And since she never made it to America, we decided to call her Eleanora, accent on the second syllable.

Eleanora happened to have been the name of a famous Italian actress at the time of little Eleanora's birth, Eleanora Duse.

We had a date and a name now. And we even knew her fate. But what could the photo tell us about her short life?


In our print, we see an alert young girl if not an infant already standing on her own and ready to chase her two older brothers around the hills of their valley. She has a rather elaborate dress, perhaps a christening outfit, and black boots.

Her arm rests casually along her brother's left leg, probably posed by the photographer to match grandfather on the other side with his arm on his brother's right leg.

Detail. The watch takes on another meaning.

None of the children are smiling. They would have had to stand there a while to pose and to hold still a while for the long exposure. Smiling (any sign of life, for that matter) would have been out of the question.

But there she is, her head still large as an infant's. You can see how it might have morphed into her brothers' faces at the age of two and the age of seven. Had she lived.


Ah, the power of that print.

It has brought her to life again in a way no story really could. We can look into her eyes, see her standing there, still for a moment. We know her name, we know her fate, her brothers long since gone to join her after helping so many people with their bruises and aches and pains and fevers and colds. What they couldn't do for her, they did for others.

She had some effect, that is, on people who never knew her. A special grace.


We've put her to work watching over us as we work. She's waited a long time to be recognized. But, even if she's not smiling, she's not complaining.

We, on the other hand, have a big enough smile for all three of them.

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