Restored Photos Give a New Look to Church History

Contributed By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 30 January 2015

Daguerreotype of Parley P. Pratt, before and after restoration.  Photo courtesy of Church History Library.

Article Highlights

  • Keith Finlayson, a volunteer for the Church History Library, restores old and damaged photos from Church history so that viewers can see them in their original quality.

“He [Keith Finlayson] works with historical images that might be scratched or damaged and is able to restore them. The restored image takes the viewer back to what it looked like originally.” —Brittany Chapman, historian at the Church History Library 

In 1845 in Nauvoo, Illinois, Willard Richards recorded something in his journal similar to this: “I went with my wife to Lucien R. Foster’s studio on Parley and Hyde Street to have our image made.” Even in early Church history, images of Church members, events, and landscapes were captured using available technology. A number of these priceless images still exist today but are in desperate need of restoration.

Keith Finlayson is a volunteer photo restorationist who has been working for almost two years at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. After his retirement from the medical field, he had a strong desire to use his expertise to work with the Church’s historical images.

“I love Church history,” said Brother Finlayson. “I love photographs, and the older they are the better they are.”

Early historical images possessed by the Church History Library number in the hundreds and are primarily daguerreotype, tintype, and ambrotype specimens. Using a glass or metal plate and some chemicals, a person could have their “likeness taken” and burned onto the plate. The tin and ambrotypes developed later and were less expensive to create. The Church even has a leathertype image in the collection that looks like a photo burned onto a piece of leather. The daguerreotype process was perfected by Louis Daguerre in the 1830s.

“The daguerreotypes are my favorite to work with because they’re the oldest and there’s fewer of them around,” said Brother Finlayson. “There was so much effort put into them that almost all of them are in focus and of good quality. It was a big deal to get your picture taken back in those days. It could be expensive.”

Because some of the images are more than 170 years old, many are scratched, worn, faded, or partially destroyed. That’s why a photo restorationist with Brother Finlayson’s background was needed. The original images are captured by taking high-resolution photographs of them or by scanning them into a computer.

“Keith is working through a variety of mediums to help restore these older images,” said Brittany Chapman, a historian at the Church History Library. “He works with historical images that might be scratched or damaged and is able to restore them. The restored image takes the viewer back to what it looked like originally.”

A glass plate negative shot at the capstone ceremony of the Salt Lake Temple on April 6, 1892, by Charles Carter was cracked, worn, and had tape markings on it. Keith took the image into a popular photo restoration program on his computer and got to work. By using tools within the software program he was able to restore it to a much better quality.

Brother Finlayson said, “I like to imagine myself next to the camera as if I am seeing what the camera originally saw. When I restore images, I want to see as close a resemblance as possible to the original. Some of the daguerreotypes are so sharp you can see a reflection in the subject’s eye of what the lighting looked like in the room. A few images in the collection you can actually see the pores of the subject’s skin.”

For example, an 1855 image of a group of missionaries taken in Great Britain on a glass negative shows early Church leaders such as Daniel Spencer, Franklin D. Richards, Captain Dan Jones, and Edward Martin. “Because of the quality of these early images, zooming in on their faces can help you feel what it would have been like to physically be in their presence,” said Sister Chapman. “By zooming in you can see that Edward Martin has really rough, pockmarked skin, which makes you wonder if he might have had smallpox. It brings a whole new meaning to what these people looked like in person.”

Another aspect to the work Brother Finlayson does is implementing some detective skills to get as much background about the image as possible. In the collection is an elevated landscape shot of a residential area, an outhouse, and the Nauvoo Temple on a hill in the background. “There are some houses in the foreground that belonged to Samuel Williams and Heber C. Kimball,” said Brother Finlayson. “Identifying those helped us figure out where this was taken. By doing some geometry on the temple and counting the pixels, it revealed that the photo was taken 25 degrees west of south.

“My brother is a mechanical engineer, and I sent him the photos. I asked him if he could figure out what angle the photo was shot at if he knew that the temple was 88 feet wide and 128 feet deep. If you draw a line to that location using some mathematical detective work, you can figure out exactly where the photo was taken.

“That puts you on Parley and Hyde Streets in Nauvoo. The structure right on the corner in the photo is still there today. It’s Joseph Coolidge’s house. It turns out that Lucian Foster had a studio on Parley Street just east of Hyde where he shot this daguerreotype from the second-story window.”

The images in the collection have been acquired by the help of a variety of people and institutions. One lucky find was made by a historian by accident. Because many of the daguerreotypes are burned on metal plates, a little fading of the image makes it look like a mirror. A person would need to look at it under a light to see the image. Sister Chapman said, “One of the well-know daguerreotypes of the Nauvoo Temple was found in an old museum and labeled as a pioneer mirror. A historian from the Church History Library was walking around and noticed it and knew that it wasn’t a mirror. It is one of only six images known to exist of the original Nauvoo Temple.”

Seeing some of these early Church images restored to their former beauty is quite remarkable. Before and after pictures show how much detail can be lost over time. Many of the images Brother Finlayson has worked on will shortly be available for viewing online at the Church History Library website as a complement to the PH 10027 (call number) collection. To find the original images, go to history.lds.org, click on the Church History Library icon, and search for PH 10027. Brother Finlayson’s restored images will be online in early February.

“We hope people in the present will come and view the images online we have collected from the past,” said Sister Chapman.