David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Photoshop for history

This week’s assignment, working with images, is up.

As others have commented, it is amazing how addictive working with images in Photoshop can be. Thankfully I got a plenty early start on it!

I chose to give my page a name: “Retouching the Capital City.” I was particularly excited about a Library of Congress painting of Washington in the 1840s–I used that as my banner header for the page (and cleaned up, but some blemishes remain). I chose the name because I chose images of Washington from different times–particularly one landmark in Washington, the historic Adas Israel synagogue, of which I give tours regularly as part of my job.

I gave myself a bit of a challenge. The one extant image of the sanctuary from the building’s synagogue period (1876-1908) came out of a 1903 newspaper. The original does not exist. The newspaper copy was essential for restoration in the early 1970s, and we frequently show it to visitors. So I tried to see if I could restore. I think I accomplished some, but it’s still most definitely a newspaper photo. I also tried a hand-coloring of it, to give perhaps a better view of what the interior originally looked like.

I also hand-colored an exterior shot from the same newspaper article. I think that turned out better, largely because the walls were not painted white, as the interior ones were! But if you want to see a really, really good colored image, I suggest you visit Megan’s page.

To get more practice, particularly with actual photographs, I restored two 1960s color photos of the former synagogue–by then three storefronts, including one with a barbecue pork sign. This proved significantly easier, and I hope helps bring greater understanding of that building’s history.

For matting an engraving, and for vignette, I used an image of Washington from 1832, showing the Capitol with the old dome. This one also proved easier to work with than the two newspapers, although it seems that some of the best methods for dealing with engravings work on images without the heavy gray dots that this one has.

The page for the assignment has more about what I did to achieve (or not) the various effects.

So all in all, an enjoyable assignment. I’m learning, as others have mentioned, just how time-consuming, frustrating, and yet absolutely amazing Photoshop is. I have already used it some in my nascent (public, thus far) history career, and am glad to know it much, much better.

Putting the assignment online gave me the opportunity to play with my webpage somewhat. On the image assignment, I got rid of the sidebar, which had been cluttering up the homepage and type assignment (I left the sidebar on those pages, though, as that would bring about a near-total reformatting). Because the image assignment page is so long, I added a navigation menu at the bottom. I’ve put that on the other pages, too.

I’m considering changing the crimson-and-yellow color scheme of the overall site, but for now I’ve decided to keep it. If anyone has suggestions there, I’m all ears.

My classmates may appreciate that for this page I didn’t use ornaments all over the place!

In order to show captions with the images, I put them into their own divs. Originally I had floated them left or right, but I realized that it would make the most sense to display before-and-after shots side-by-side. I also wanted to have the captions under each individual image.

To do that, I experimented with creating a second div, to wrap the two divs. After much, much difficulty and attempts at coding, I seem to have gotten that to work. At first the images displayed side-by-side, but the height was inconsistent, leading to some strange word wrapping. I then tried setting a background color for the large div. That didn’t display. Finally, after some trial and error I got that to display–but one caption hung over. So in the end, I just cheated the shorter caption, adding line breaks to make it even.

If anyone wants to look at my CSS and tell me if I should be doing something else with that portion, I’m all ears! Like with Photoshop, there is still a great deal to learn…

Addendum: This week I commented on Claire’s and Richard’s blogs.


  1. David,

    I’m only skimming as it’s four in the morning, but I wanted to make some comments so I wouldn’t forget. First of all, as to your page’s design, it looks great. I had completely forgotten the ornaments until you mentioned them in the blog post. Here, all the elements come together well. I love the font choice and styling in the headers, and the positioning of your h2s (?) on the left is a nice compromise in terms of calling back to original documents. The images are also presented wonderfully, the color scheme is great, and the whole thing is very legible. Also, I love the header.

    As to your image assignment itself, I will say briefly how impressed I am with your choice of old photographs from newspapers. I found myself frustrated in trying to make my colorized image look real, but I like the approach you took: that the exercise of coloring difficult images can still help to add texture. You make a great point! I suppose we have to constantly re-evaluate what real is anyway.

    Thanks for sharing!

    – Claire

  2. I’m impressed by the restoring color photographs – nice work, and it makes such a huge difference! (and the irony of the bbq joint…)

  3. David,

    You did a fantastic job on all your images, especially how you restored the photographs of the Adas Israel synagogue. In my mind, as photographs age, they do so to the point where most observers can figure out when the picture was taken.

    Yet, through your restoration efforts, people could easily believe that those pictures were taken recently, as opposed to the circa 1960s. The way you enhanced the barbecue sign and enhanced the sky did wonders to the overall quality of the picture. So much so, the picture looks youthful and vibrant.

    Great work!


  4. Well done overall on your image assignment David! In particular I was impressed by the newspaper images which you restored and recolored. I too attempted to edit a newspaper image (one of my Grandfather when he was interviewed for his work in the OSS after WWII) but found it far too frustrating so I gave up. I see that you found the Lynda video on newspaper images specifically more useful than I did!

    I thought that the richness of color you got out of the two restored images was really nice as well.

    Good work overall!

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