Free photo restoration for Sandy victims

Sandy Durando looks through her albums for salvageable Sandy Durando looks through her albums for salvageable family photographs that were damaged during superstorm Sandy. (Jan. 25, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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The day after superstorm Sandy struck, Donnie Durando found one of his family's photo albums a block from his parents' Long Beach home, filled with damaged pictures of his childhood.

His mother had a walk-in closet full of the albums on the home's first floor, and many were destroyed in the flood.

"We salvaged as much as we could," said Durando, 32, an investment banker from Lindenhurst. "It was a very sad day when we had to get rid of a lot of the things."

Now a volunteer group that restores photographs ravaged by disasters is coming to New York City, and Durando hopes more of his parents' memories can be salvaged.

"If there is something that could be salvaged, that would mean a lot to my mom, and I'd be very happy," he said.

Operation Photo Rescue, a nonprofit with 3,000 volunteers worldwide, reproduces damaged photos digitally, carefully makes computer-assisted repairs and prints new copies -- all at no cost to those served. The group has restored an estimated 9,000 photos across the nation to date, providing some solace to survivors of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and wildfires.

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Next weekend, the group will team with the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and others. Sandy victims can bring up to 20 photos apiece to the school at 133 W. 21st St., Room 101C, on Saturday and Sunday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Walk-ins are welcome, though appointments can be made online.

"Those photographs are your memory, your family, the records of your community," said Katrin Eismann, chairwoman of the school's Master of Professional Studies Digital Photography Department. "No matter how tattered or damaged they are, we keep them."

Operation Photo Rescue was founded in 2006, in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina the previous year. Rebecca Sell, a newspaper photographer documenting the aftermath, had taken a picture of a woman standing in front of her New Orleans home, clutching a damaged portrait she'd found in the rubble.

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"When I saw the image, I got the idea," recalled Dave Ellis, then Sell's editor at The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.

"A couple of days later I asked Becky, 'What happened? What did the woman do with the photo?' and she said she just tossed it. And that's when I told Becky about the idea that I had about doing the restoration."

Sell and Ellis launched Operation Photo Rescue, which has since visited a dozen communities in crisis to bring family photographs back to life. The group's current president, Margie Hayes, got involved after a flood in Coffeyville, Kan., in 2007.

"You feel empathy with people because you know what it would feel like if you lost your pictures," said Hayes, who lives in El Dorado, Kan. "I think people enjoy Operation Photo Rescue because it's like you have a skill that you can use and it's more personal."

Couples sometimes arrive with warped and waterlogged wedding photos and are amazed when they're handed good-as-new prints, she said.

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"I don't want to give the impression that we're 100 percent successful, because some pictures are goners, there's nothing we can do with them, but it is such a satisfaction," she said.

Eismann, author of a book called "Photoshop Restoration & Retouching" -- which many of Hayes' volunteers have read -- said Sandy-damaged photos will be evaluated, then copied with an advanced digital camera. The files will be uploaded to a server and the restoration and retouching work assigned to volunteers. The cameras and other equipment are provided by JPMorgan Chase. Among the other sponsors is the photo-scanning service, DigMyPics.

"All originals are treated with utmost respect," Eismann said. "These people have lost enough."

One Sandy victim, Melissa Stines, 32, said she saved some photographs and clothes from her home in the Rockaways, but little else.

She'll be taking her wedding album and photos of her two young children to Operation Photo Rescue. The pictures are now a shade of green, and the album has fallen apart, but she's willing to give the rescue workers a shot.

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"They're already destroyed," she said of her tattered keepsakes. "It can't get any worse."


OPERATION PHOTO RESCUE

* Sandy victims can schedule a New York City appointment with Operation Photo Rescue online at https://www-13b.bookeo.com/bookeo/b_operationphotorescue_start.html

* To learn more about the group, visit operationphotorescue.org

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