Restoring History — Pixel by Pixel

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Rita Mattia breathes new life into images from our past

By Kris Gilbertson

In December 2016, a new client brought Rita Mattia an emotion-charged challenge: Could she rescue a pencil portrait drawn from her high school graduation photo in the 1980s by her beloved brother, now dead? The art had hung unprotected in a house with smokers, then was roughly folded up and left exposed to sunlight. The paper was so degraded that it crumbled when touched.

A few days later, Mattia, principal of Rita Restores, presented her client with a digitally restored print of the image as it had originally existed. “As often happens,” says Rita, “she wept when I gave her the print.”

Who Rita is and what she does

This stunning pencil portrait was found tattered, torn and falling apart in a bureau drawer. It is now a framed 16 x 20” masterpiece. The client said, “I thought I would never get to see the real beauty of it again.” (Courtesy of Rita Restores)

Rita Mattia has been a writer and creative director for ad agencies in Baltimore and Richmond. She is a skilled photographer and, when photography went digital in the 1990s, she developed fine art images that merited a one-woman show at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond, in 2006. All of this work involved Photoshop. “I didn’t just take a picture,” she says, “I messed with it.”

Now semi-retired, Rita focuses on digital restoration of damaged (or just poorly staged) images. Working from high resolution scans, Mattia reconstructs images, often pixel by pixel, from photographs and other art media, producing archival-quality image files and prints. “Of all the things I’ve ever done,” she adds, “I enjoy this the most.”

Starting close to home

When Rita’s parents died in the mid-90s, she took custody of boxes of old, damaged, unidentified photos and realized how little she knew of her family history.

This sparked a dive into genealogy to search for the identities of the photos’ subjects, through which she connected with relatives, some of whom she hadn’t known existed. Members of her now extended family not only provided those identities but also sent Mattia more family photos for restoration. This expanded to friends, and then to clients. She perfected her digital skills over eight years, founded Rita Restores early this year, and has customers in more than ten states.

This vintage portrait was found in pieces under a sofa that had not been moved in more than 40 years. The framed restoration now hangs in a proud great granddaughter’s parlor. (Courtesy of Rita Restores)

Mattia moved to Old Town early this year and soon looked for ways to get involved in the community. She learned through a neighborhood listserv that Lee-Fendall House needed help with their collection. “I was excited about Lee-Fendall House because I was a big fan of Mercy Street,” she says. “In reality, it was a mid-20th century labor leader [they needed help with].”

“We were putting together an exhibit about John L. Lewis, who lived in the house in the 20th century,” says Amanda Roper, Lee-Fendall House Assistant Manager. “We had a number of images that we wanted to use but we didn’t want to put some originals out on display, so when she told me what she did, I was so excited. Rita’s father was involved in the labor movement, too, so there was a personal connection for her with the John L. Lewis exhibit.”

Mattia calls this restored gem “The Bee Lady,” although the costume may have been designed to represent any number of creatures, imaginary or otherwise. The photo was taken circa 1918. (Courtesy of Rita Restores)

Rita says she wanted to work on the project “because it was thanks to [John L. Lewis] that we did something about child labor laws in this country. Nine-year-olds were going into coal mines.” She continues to work with the museum on varied exhibits.

Market value nothing, sentimental value millions

“Rita talks about miraculous endings and it’s true,” says Richmond resident and client John Fechino. “You see these treasured images, all old and crinkled, and she cleans them up so you see the image, but not the wear and tear.

“She fixes hands that are missing, she puts people back on center—things you thought you could never have. And she’s really smart about finding ways to fix things without a clear path how to get there. I’m sure she told you about how she helped people after Superstorm Sandy?”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Mattia joined a group of artisan volunteers who restored photographic images that had been damaged by the storm. People brought their materials to an office to be scanned and posted on the internet. The volunteers downloaded the scans and uploaded restored files. (The volunteer group has since disbanded.) “People lost their homes and everything,” says Fechino, “the last thing they wanted to lose was a photo keepsake.

“Market value nothing, sentimental value millions,” he adds. “We attach such a high value to images. It’s like our door into our past.”

This was the only remaining photograph of a 1961 wedding day, and it was kept in an album under adhesive plastic that was slowly degrading the image. Now all four of the couple’s sons have this precious portrait. (Courtesy of Rita Restores)

Where and how the past comes back

Mattia works in a private studio full of natural light, with walls that are a gallery for her restored family images, each having a side card listing its provenance. The studio includes her computer, a high definition (1200 dpi) scanner, and a printer with a 17” bed. She only prints on heavy-weight, acid-free, matte finish paper that is rated to last 99 years if protected from UV exposure.

The studio also has a comfortable sitting area for meetings. “I want the person to come and consult with me so I can see what they have and we can talk about what the client really wants,” she says.

An example is the bride and groom print. One of four brothers had it, the only existing photo from their parents’ wedding, and asked if Rita could do something with it. Yes, she said, but don’t you have three brothers? He said, okay four prints. He didn’t initially realize he wanted four, which is the kind of thing many people wouldn’t know until they sat down and talked about it.

There’s nothing quite like children and Christmas morning …even a century later. This sadly fading vintage photo, circa 1920, became a joyous gift for family as well as a hand-tinted holiday greeting card. (Courtesy of Rita Restores)

Mattia will advise about sizes of prints (“If I make a 16 x 20, do you have any idea what that’s going to cost to frame properly? And how dominant that’s going to be in a room? Is that what you really want?”) and consult on how to frame and display it appropriately. (“Is an old photo a little silly looking? A formal frame can make art into a serious portrait.”)

Rita will make house calls within “a reasonable distance. Maybe they have a ton of stuff and they want me to look at it and say what do I have here, do I have anything you can do something with?” she says. “So they can come to me or I can go to them, or they can ship it to me, though, obviously, if you ship there is a risk. Or they can have it scanned.”

Rita Mattia with a portrait of her grandfather Angelo Maria Mattia, one of many family images she has restored, framed and displays in her private studio.

Rita Mattia, digital restorer

Mattia emphasizes that what she does is digital restoration, not art conservation. “When you get your original back from me,” she says, “it looks just like it did when it arrived.” But it will be accompanied by a disk with the scan of the art that the client brought to Rita, a file of the restored image, and whatever archival-quality prints were requested.

Rita has a cousin in the military, and when she showed him the before and after images of her work, his comment was, “the FBI doesn’t do it any better.”