Volunteer group restores treasured photos damaged by Sandy

One of the many photos damaged by Sandy was this one of a young girl in front of her family's restaurant. Jonathan Mason will restore it for its owners.
One of the many photos damaged by Sandy was this one of a young girl in front of her family's restaurant. Jonathan Mason will restore it for its owners. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 06, 2012

Pat Gallagher will never get back most of the things her family lost when Hurricane Sandy flooded the basement of their home in the Rockaway section of New York City, such as her daughter's prom dresses or her Barbie collection.

So it's a small miracle that one soggy but cherished heirloom, a remaining black-and-white photo of the restaurant that the Gallagher family owned in the Rockaways for decades, is getting a second life.

Almost as remarkable is that it survived because of the kindness of a complete stranger, a Rowan University professor and filmmaker who has toiled for hours on a computer screen to bring back the flood-damaged 1966 image, which includes Gallagher's sister-in-law, Rosemary, as a young girl.

"We may just see a child in a photo, but it's a fond memory for someone," said Jonathan Mason, the Rowan film professor who has painstakingly restored the snapshot.

Using the digital editing program Photoshop, he removed scratches that slashed through the girl's face and clothing and the sign, while restoring the proper color and writing on the neon Gallagher's sign.

The salvation of Gallagher's 46-year-old family photo is just one early success of an ambitious volunteer effort called CARE (Cherished Album Restoration Effort) for Sandy, which is recruiting photo-editing experts such as Mason from around the world. The goal is to recover thousands of pictures damaged when the storm destroyed homes and swamped basements along the Eastern Seaboard.

The brainchild of Brooklyn, N.Y., art designer - and former Pennsylvania Ballet dancer - Lee Kelly, CARE for Sandy began by scanning hundreds of storm-damaged photos from a dozen families in the battered Rockaway section of Queens. It aims to collect even more pictures from the Jersey Shore this month.

"You can replace a car, you can replace a home and job and clothes and things, but these photos contain stories," said Kelly, 38.

She said she got the idea for the project in early November shortly after Sandy's landfall, as she looked for volunteer opportunities on hard-hit Staten Island.

Kelly saw a Staten Island newspaper story about a woman who found two photos of a gorgeous bride washed up on a beach. She tracked down the bride and offered to restore the pictures; it occurred to her that there must be thousands more photos damaged by the storm.

What happened next is a story of how 21st century methods - including using social networking to recruit an ever-growing list of volunteers, and scanning, sharing and fixing photos using computer technology - are salvaging cherished 20th century family images.

Starting with her circle of creative friends, Kelly, a freelancer who books musical talent and designs crossword puzzles in addition to editing photos, has so far drawn about 200 volunteers from as far away as Ukraine, Israel, and Brazil. Many were delighted to learn there was a way to volunteer for a hurricane relief effort when they could not get to New York or New Jersey in person.

"Often when something like this happens, people are struggling to figure out how they can contribute," said Mason. "You can't always spend a month at the shore fixing a house or afford to donate money, but maybe you have skills that can be handy."

Mason, who was contacted by Lee early on, helped recruit a number of the volunteers from friends, who then asked their friends, and so on. He has focused on the difficult task of managing the volunteers and making sure they have the right kind of expertise.

Despite the sophistication of the technology, Mason said it can take weeks or sometimes months, working nights and weekends, to fully restore an image. Sometimes, he explained, an entire body part has faded away and a similar-looking one must be located in a data bank, or sometimes illustration work is necessary.

"We have one photo of a baby," Mason said. "It's got water damage, the emulsion on the photo is worn out, and one of the baby's hands is completely gone, so somebody had to go in and reconstruct a hand."

One of the biggest challenges has been connecting with the storm victims. At the first photo-scanning in the Rockaways last month, Kelly said, federal emergency-management officials moved the event to a vacant building at the last minute, which she believes held down the attendance. Still, a dozen families came and scanned between 300 to 500 photos.

"One woman cried and said, 'My mother died of cancer six years ago - this is the only photo I had,' " Kelly said. "Others said, 'I wish I'd known, we threw them away.' "

Plans are to return to the Rockaways this month, and the tentative schedule is to scan photos at a yet-to-be-determined site at the Shore on Dec. 22.

Information is on the program's website, careforsandy.org.

Although the equipment can scan up to 100 photos an hour, the program asks families to identify one cherished shot that will be the priority for the time-consuming work.

Organizers anticipate that the project eventually will restore thousands of photos - especially since so many families stored photo albums or boxes of pictures in their basements.

That was the case for Gallagher, who watched helplessly as six feet of flood water inundated the basement of the nearly 90-year-old home - less than a quarter-mile from the ocean - that she and her husband had bought from his parents. Thousands of old family photos stored in the basement were destroyed.

The pictures that Gallagher brought to be scanned included her husband's high school graduation photo, a black-and-white of Gallagher and her family around a Christmas tree when she was 3, and her daughter's first dance recital.

"It's a memory of a particular day," she said. "You always have the visual in your mind, but when you have the photograph, you can show someone else that this was a great day."


Contact Kathy Boccella at 856-779-3812 or kboccella@phillynews.com

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