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Highlighting the stories of Milwaukee-area businesses that fix things.

At Milwaukee restoration shop, heirloom photos get a second life

A wall is filled with framed heirloom photos that have been restored
Lina Tran
Looking at the gallery of B&L Photo, time plays tricks on you.

Looking around the gallery at B&L Photo Lab, time plays tricks on you. There are heirloom family photos, military portraits, and snaps of towns long gone.

Each comes in a pair. The “before” photos are ripped, scuffed, and stained. The “after” photos are in mint condition — yet many of them still appear old.

For more than 40 years, the Milwaukee shop, run by husband-and-wife duo Bob Pecher and Lauren Deitch, has been taking damaged photos and restoring them.

“We’re probably the only shop anywhere that is happy if a customer goes out the door crying,” Pecher says.

It happened just the week before I visited the shop at 3486 N. Oakland Ave.

“A very sweet lady came in who is not sighted, but she had a picture of her grandfather,” Pecher says. “She wanted it redone because of her grandchildren.” When she came to pick it up, she brought a friend with her. “Her friend said, ‘It looks glorious,’” he continues. “The woman started crying, even though she couldn’t see it.”

Pecher’s goal isn’t just to return a photo in prime condition — but one that will stand the test of time.

“I am the maker of time machines here,” he says. “I take images that may have been made 100 years ago. I’m making sure that they’re going to last another 100 years.”

Over time, regular photos fade, pretty much from day one. For an image that will last, B&L offers silver gelatin prints. The black is inky, deep.

“The image is made up of metallic silver,” Pecher says. “Where you see black, that’s real silver. Wherever you see white, there is no silver at all. These prints, when processed properly, will have a life of 150 years or more.”

Pecher says such prints are actually more secure than digital photos, which require maintaining files on a cellphone, laptop, or the cloud. Too often, things crash and technology changes.

“The biggest danger, starting with the electronic age, is that the vast majority of prints are never made,” he says. “People are taking more photographs than ever, but leaving little or no photographic evidence behind them, because it’s all stored electronically.”

Today, Pecher’s restoring a family portrait, faded to red, from the 70s. You can tell by the permed hairstyles.

A man in a mask holds up a photograph of a six-person family that has faded to red and white.
Lina Tran
Bob Pecher shows the fading on a family photo he's restoring.

“This is a faded color picture of a family group that was taken outside,” he says. “It’s red and yellow, all the color is gone.”

He starts by taking a photo of the picture with a high-definition, 65-megapixel camera.

Next, Pecher sits down at his computer and opens a photo-editing program. He turns the faded color photo into a black-and-white. Then, he zooms in, using what’s called a clone brush. After starting out in the industry as a studio and wedding photographer, Pecher has a photographer’s eye for editing.

A couple mouse clicks demonstrate the brush’s usefulness. “You just put the clone brush down on what looks good to you, or matches the color of what you’re working on,” Pecher says. “And you just transfer it on there.”

One woman is missing her philtrum, that dent between your nose and upper lip.

“There’s a flaw in this person’s nose and face where the canvas got rubbed against something, and it took off some of the emulsion here,” he explains.

Pecher borrows a philtrum from another woman in the family and drops it into the missing space.

Next, he scrubs minute patches of grime off the photo, which was printed on canvas and wasn’t kept behind glass. As a result, dust settled into the canvas’s tiny grooves. Zoomed in, he makes his way across the entire image.

Pecher talks about photos in this tactile way, like he’s in the photo elbows-deep, manipulating it with the physicality of a sculpture artist.

“I’m going to reach in and take out some things that would not be apparent to the naked eye,” he says. “It’s going to look better to you because your brain is actually seeing those little spots, even though they don’t register to you consciously.”

When Pecher’s finished, he’ll use a device called a film recorder, which converts the digital photo into a physical film negative. Then, he takes that into his darkroom in the basement downstairs, where he develops the film to make a silver print.

Over the years, the technology has certainly changed. But the ideas behind the work — and people’s connection to their photos — has stayed the same.

“I’m not delivering this piece of paper to you,” Pecher says. “I’m delivering to you the memory of who these people were, and the importance of that to you. So that you can give this to somebody else down the road. And make sure that these people live on.”

A woman's hand holds up a 19th century family portrait that was black and white, but faded to purple.
Lina Tran
Lauren Deitch shows a copy of a 19th century photograph that came into the shop. The original photo was lost.

Lauren Deitch, Pecher’s wife, joined him in the business after working almost two decades as a nurse. This morning, she’s been working on a copy of this 19th century black-and-white portrait that faded to purple.

“Somebody copied it years before, lost the original. This is all they have,” she says. “They always lose the original.”

There’s something so human about the way things that mean so much to us get damaged or lost. “They live life,” Dietsch says. Now, the photos can live many years more.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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