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Our Digital Restoration of an Historic Photo Collage of University of Michigan Football Legend Tom Harmon

July 30, 2012

Long before Tom Brady, Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson and even Ron Kramer, there was Tom Harmon.

A standout for the University of Michigan football team between 1938-1940, the Rensellaer, Indiana native became Michigan’s first Heisman Trophy winner in 1940 – an award that capped off a brilliant career that included rushing for more than 2,100 years and leading the nation in scoring in both 1939 and 1940, a feat  no one has duplicated before and since.

Harmon was so well-known and idolized that he starred in a quasi-fictional Columbia Pictures film, Harmon of Michigan, which was released in 1941.

These days, however, Harmon (who died in 1990) is better known as the father of actor Mark Harmon, star of the hit CBS TV series NCIS.

During the height of Harmon’s fame, the Chicago Athletic Club commissioned a huge photo collage/mural of the man known as “Old 98.” Consisting of 9-10 different negatives layered on top of each other  and painstakingly arranged in a way that must have take hours (if not days) to complete pre-Photoshop, the framed mural has pictures of Harmon in action and on the sidelines with an aerial shot of Michigan Stadium serving as its background.  Measuring approximately 4 feet by 4 feet, it probably stood in the main entrance of the athletic club, along with other murals of prominent football players of the era.

When the Chicago Athletic Club underwent renovations approximately 30-40 years ago, the mural was removed and given to the Harmon family. At some point, Mark Harmon gave the mural to the owner of a sporting-goods store. (Rumor has it that Harmon’s wife, Pam Dawber of Mork and Mindy fame, told him to get rid of it during a garage cleanup) Shortly after Tom Banfield opened Banfield’s Westside Grill in Ann Arbor about two decades owner, he received the mural as a “housewarming” present.

Last month, as Banfield prepared to sell his business at Jackson and Zeeb roads, he talked to us at Priceless Photo Preservation about not only preserving the picture for posterity but digitally restoring it to its former glory. As Ann Arbor-based professional archivists, we eagerly agreed to do this project because we consider digital restoration and preservation of unique objects – particularly items  as historical as this one – to be the core of our digitization business.

Both the size of the mural and it condition presented a unique set of challenges. Because the photo was unprotected by glass and hung in one of the restaurant’s busiest dining rooms, it had been subjected to constant light, food stains, spilled beer and cigarette smoke, creating huge spots, scratches and other imperfections. Because it was so large and it had both surface bumps and shiny spots, we knew using an oversized scanner would not work. So we contacted former Ann Arbor News photographer Lon Horwedel (left) who carefully lit the mural and photographed it in segments with his high-powered DSLR to capture all the details and make the resulting restoration as large as possible. Here’s a shot of what it looked like before the restoration process began:

Next, working with the RAW files provided by Horwedel, Priceless Photo Preservation partner Hanna Stelman did the project in stages. Dividing the mural into four segments, she zoomed in to get a fully detailed view of each pixel. Spots (from food, beer or whatever other substance) were removed. Stains were made to vanish or otherwise blend into the background. Colors were evened out to reflect what the mural originally looked like. And she took care of a major problem that is not immediately apparent until you look closely at the mural. Much like a billboard, the photo is actually several different photos that have been wallpapered into the frame. In certain areas, seams were visible and had to be surgically removed through digital means. You can plainly see evidence of this in a close-up of one of the more problematic sections of the original picture,  a portrait of former Michigan coach Fielding Yost.

Next, the overall color of the piece had to be adjusted. This, in itself, is a practice that undergoes continuous debate among us professional archivists. Should an object be preserved as it is or as it was originally meant to be? Though it may seem to be a sepia collage, this is not true sepia because the colors so widely vary and are inconsistent. Thus, we could comfortably surmise that black and white was the original form of the 70-year-old mural.

So, after all is said and done, here’s a preview of what the digitized and restored mural now looks like. (We have scaled it down considerably so that we can upload it to this site. We have also added a watermark.)

And here’s a look at the problematic northwest quadrant with the highly visible seam – now removed from Yost’s face with a little digital magic.

We hope you enjoyed this little glimpse of Michigan football history – and a peek into our work as a partnership of University of Michigan-trained professional archivists who can digitize, restore and archive your photos, slides, home videos and movies the right way. You might not have Tom Harmon mural in your hallway, but you probably have an older family picture we can restore to its former glory. Feel free to drop us a line at pricelessphotopreservation -at- gmail.com.

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