Volunteers help restore photos damaged by Sandy

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Of all the images of superstorm Sandy's destruction, the ones that linger for Deer Park resident Florence Catania are the torn, stained pictures that hung on her walls.

Her mother's decades-old wedding portrait, her own eighth-grade graduation photo, a snapshot that captured her mom on a carefree teenage day, all damaged in a Sandy-sparked fire at Catania's home.

But volunteers with Operation Photo Rescue scattered around the world are digitally mending Catania's personal photos and others battered by Sandy.

Founded after Hurricane Katrina, the nonprofit network of photographers, graphic artists and hobbyists has repaired more than 9,000 pictures discolored by floods, pockmarked by debris, speckled by mold and otherwise damaged by disasters in recent years. The Sandy project, which started last weekend, promises to be one of Operation Photo Rescue's most expert efforts yet.

"It means a lot to me," Catania said after bringing her photos to the restorers Saturday. "These are irreplaceable."

The restorers began shooting digital copies of the damaged prints with high-resolution professional cameras and specialized no-glare lighting Saturday at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, wearing white gloves to handle images as though they were museum pieces.

A Metropolitan Museum of Art imaging expert and two of the museum's photo conservators were on hand to provide advice, and two of the camera setups had been used to help the Atlanta-based King Center digitize hundreds of thousands of documents associated with Martin Luther King Jr.

Repairing the photos is a painstaking process that can entail resourcefulness and research.

The average picture takes a few hours of work; some take as long as a week, said Operation Photo Rescue president Margie Hayes, a technical writer-turned-graphic artist. She got involved in the group after 2007 floods in nearby Coffeyville, Kan., about 120 miles from her home in El Dorado, Kan.

The refurbished prints are sent to the owners for free. Film-digitizing company DigMyPics has donated the printmaking and postage; PhotoShelter, a photography site, donates the online space where the images are stored for volunteers to see.

The Sandy effort also entailed other key contributions: three image-capturing stations, provided by Ken Allen Studios, a digital-imaging business, and JPMorgan Chase.

Dave Ellis, the photography director at The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va., and Rebecca Sell, who was then a photographer at the paper, launched Operation Photo Rescue in 2006, after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast the previous summer.

The group now counts some 3,000 volunteers in all 50 states and 75 other countries.

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