A deft hand at retouching life's keepsakes

Chen Linxing is an "old master" – one of only a handful of people in Shanghai who know how to retouch photos with pencils and brushes.
Ti Gong

Shanghai photographer and photo editor Chen Linxing has been working to save old and damanged photos for years.

Old photos are often tossed in a drawer and forgotten. But once retrieved, they can trigger emotions precious to a person’s life.

Chen Linxing, a Shanghai photographer and photo editor, has been working to save those memories by repairing old photos.

Working as manager of the People’s Photo Studio, a small, state-owned firm on a backstreet behind busy Huaihai Road M., Chen is an “old master” — one of only a handful of people in Shanghai who know how to retouch photos with pencils and brushes.

In bringing the past back to life, Chen also utilizes technologies and can repair photos quickly with software such as Photoshop. But that’s only part of the solution to bringing old photos back to life.

“Many of the pictures sent to me are very damaged and were clearly never taken care of,” says Chen, 60. “But sometimes, say, when a person in a photo dies, their families want to preserve what may be the only picture of the deceased. I always try to squeeze in the time to help them.”

Chen says the photo-repair business started to gain attention in 2014. He recalls an old woman surnamed Zhao asked the studio around that time to repair a family portrait taken in the 1960s.

“Before she came over to us, she had tried many photo studios around the city,” Chen says. “Everybody told her that it was a mission impossible. The photo contained the only picture she had of her grandmother. It was taken before Zhao got married, and her grandmother passed away soon after the wedding.”

Chen says the task was nearly mission impossible. Zhao didn’t even have the original picture, only a negative. There were more than 10 people on the picture, and mildew had blurred their faces.

After scanning the negative into the computer, Chen found that at least half the faces in the photo were still distinct, so he managed to sketch the other halves using the existing ones as reference.

“After two days, when the work was done, Zhao came to fetch the new picture,” Chen says. “As soon as she saw it, she broke into tears, saying it was exactly how she remembered her grandmother.”

Chen’s skills were honed from long experience. In the 1970s, he attended a vocational school, where he majored in photography and picture editing.

After working as a teacher at the school for three years, Chen joined the People’s Photo Studio. His assignment was to retouch photos taken at the studio so that the people in them looked better.

“Back then, there was no Photoshop or any other graphics software,” Chen says. “But just like people today use beauty-plus apps on their phones, people back then also wanted to look prettier than usual in pictures taken at photo studios. That was their purpose coming to a studio in the first place.”

Giving photos a manual retouching was a fine art. Customers wanted their portraits to be prettier but still look like themselves. Also, no traits of retouching were to be obvious.

“Photo editors need sketching skills and knowledge about the structure of the human body,” Chen explains. “That takes at least three years of experience Without those skills, customers might complain. Many are the times when a person has said, ‘You’ve made the portrait of me look like a drawing instead of a photo’.”

Ti Gong

Chen Linxing repaired a badly marred wedding photo after sourcing decades-old files to find earlier images of the newlywed.

Chen still keeps his tool kit for manual picture editing, containing an illuminated board, a brush, an ink stick, a small box of watercolors and a pencil. The pencil is specially sharpened to make the lead much longer than usual.

“The pencil is for editing the plate so that the view won’t be blocked,” Chen says.

In the modern era of technology, Chen’s kit is mostly in retirement. Picture-editing software has been introduced into the industry, creating more possibilities.

“I was no longer young when I first tried to use a computer,” Chen says. “So my former students became my teachers. It was a long process and was, quite frankly, difficult for me.”

However, it was modern technology that helped a couple who came to him seeking repair of a badly marred wedding photo. The couple said the photo was taken at the People’s Photo Studio about 50 years ago. During the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), they had to cut the faces from images in the photo and then threw the picture away.

Chen and his colleagues searched through hundreds of old pictures in the studio’s data bank and finally found some pictures that looked very similar to the original wedding photo.

“In the file photos, the lady identified the wedding dress and jewelry she had been wearing and the bouquet she had held,” Chen says. “The rest of the work was easy. We merged several pictures together and created a new picture for them. They were so overjoyed that they had us take a new ‘wedding’ photo in our studio.”

But not every job can be resolved with modern technology. Sometimes, Chen has to resort to the old methods to get results.

On example was the severely damaged photo presented by one customer. In it, two men were standing side by side in military uniforms. One of them was the customer. Chen says he could scan the picture, fix it and print it for him, but the man declined.

“He just wanted the original one because it had the signature of the other man, his comrade-in-arms who had died,” Chen says. “It was the only picture he had of him, so he didn’t want a reprinted version.”

So Chen took out his old kit and fixed the photo, stroke by stroke, with pencil and brush. In the end, it looked as good as new.

Chen has endless stories to tell about the old pictures that he tried to repair. The tales hark back to different eras and express personal joys and sorrows.

“You can’t imagine how many people have photos they want repaired,” Chen says. “In the end, I don’t have the time and energy to do them all. There are so few of us skilled at this sort of thing today.”

He recalls that his vocational school once ended the major in photo repair because the business was saturated with practitioners. But most of those old professionals are gone.

“The old technologies still have their place,” he says. “That’s why I hope young people will be drawn to those traditional photo-editing skills, which can still be useful even in an age of computer software.”

Ti Gong

Chen Lixing (left) gives a lesson on the basics of photo repair to a group of children.

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