Photographer Ray Simone restores negatives of NYC’s past, pixel by pixel

Posted On Thu, June 14, 2018 By

Posted On Thu, June 14, 2018 By In Features, History, photography, The urban lens

Central Park, 1900 © Ray Simone

6sqft’s series The Urban Lens invites photographers to share work exploring a theme or a place within New York City. In this installment, Ray Simone shares vintage photographs of New York City he has lovingly restored to stunning quality. Are you a photographer who’d like to see your work featured on The Urban Lens? Get in touch with us at [email protected].

Born-and-raised Manhattanite Ray Simone has a native knowledge of New York, as well as an intimate understanding of its past lives. When he’s not taking current photos of the city, he’s in his Williamsburg studio, restoring its past, negative by negative to shocking quality. While some negatives take under an hour to restore, the more badly damaged ones can require more than 40 hours of painstaking work, going pixel by pixel. “You can only work at something a certain amount of hours at a time,” Simone reflects, “You get tunnel vision after a while; carpal tunnel.” Ahead, 6sqft talks to Simone about his photo restoration business and his thoughts on NYC’s history and future, and we get a special look at some of his greatest restoration works.

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
5th Avenue bus, 1915

How’d you get into the negative restoration business?

It’s been a long journey. How it all started was, I used to work out of a studio on 19th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. Before the ‘90s, 6th Avenue between 14th and 34th Streets on weekends was a dead zone. It was strictly a garment center and on weekends there wasn’t any business, and there were so many empty lots between those streets. I used to work at the studio on weekends, for free, and those empty lots were filled with people selling their housewares and goods at pop-up flea markets. I’ve been collecting photographs since I was 10; I always collected photographs. One day, I saw some camera negatives. I bought one, and then the addiction – whatever you want to call it – took off from there.

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Cop on corner

Where’s the best place to find the negatives you restore?

Antique stores and garage sales. There are some professional auction houses – not Sotheby’s, too expensive – there’s one called Heritage, that are very high-end, for if you want to buy Jimi Hendrix’s guitar or Mick Jagger’s scarf. They’ll notify me if there’s something there. I’ve been collecting negatives for 25 years. I stopped collecting photos; I switched.

Most people don’t think about it. Most people want the finished product. You have to go to yard sales where people have a box of photos, and you’ll come across a negative or two in there.

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Lower Manhattan, 1932

Do you buy negatives online?

It’s hard to buy negatives online because a lot of them are fake duplicates, or copy negatives. If you don’t trust the person it’s easy to get ripped off. I only print them and I only restore the original negative that was in the camera.

A tintype is a one of a kind. So, a tintype is kind of a negative and a photograph at the same time. It was the emulsion burning onto the tin. So, it’s like a little piece of metal.

Ray Simone, vintage NYCBeach, 1900

Have you ever come upon faked negatives?

What a lot of people do is, let’s say there’s a very famous photograph, they’ll photograph the photograph and say that’s the negative. It’s never gonna print the same. My trained eye can tell if it was in the camera or a duplicate. It’s called a dupe in the photography world. I’m not gonna waste my time restoring something like that. I like old glass negatives from the 1800s.

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Chinatown fireworks

How quickly can you tell if a negative is damaged?

In seconds. You have to see if you have the ability to make a print out of it. Sometimes [the negatives] are underexposed or damaged. There’s a lot of elements that are involved in that

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Empire State Building

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Flushing Meadow

When are most of your negatives from?

I don’t like much after the 1920s unless it’s something really cool.

Ray Simone, vintage NYC

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Top: Yankee parking, 1947; Bottom: Babe Ruth

How much work is involved in restoring negatives?

It’s a lot of work. I have a negative which I think is very important and highly desirable: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a uniform that’s not from the team, it’s their own design, they’re on the field. The negative is in terrible disrepair but I just couldn’t turn it down, so I’m trying my hardest. I don’t want to say I’m going to give up.

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Times Square

How do you go about finding the vintage photos you use?

I like, of course, Times Square. I like things with cars in the backgrounds, a movie theater with the billboards or the marquee on it. The major actors. The film that’s being played. I really enjoy looking at those, and it also makes it a lot easier to date. If it’s not dated, you look up the movie and you basically have a one- or two-month window.

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Greenpoint Avenue, 1930

Are you happy about the way the city has been changing?

No. Maybe 15 years ago but now it’s just as sanitized as anywhere else. It was gritty in the ’60s and the ’70s and ’80s. The city’s always changing, there’s always something going on. Look at the Meatpacking District: Everything’s commercial. All the small little mom-and-pop shops are gone – that breaks my heart when I see that. I want the city to be clean and safe but it has lost its intimacy in a way.

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Lower East Side

Do you take photos yourself as well?

I’m a photographer but I don’t do that as much as I used to. I’m hoping it takes off one day, a show at a gallery somewhere somehow. I had a show in London that actually did quite well, and the people there enjoyed spending the money, but I don’t know if New Yorkers are tight. The English love that Americana.

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Queens Boulevard

What is your process for restoring the negatives?

You have to go with, let’s call it a paintbrush, that’s made out of sable. You have to slowly dip the paint in, paint over stuff. I deep scan everything – they’re about a gig-and-a-half size file. I bring it down to a workable file, 300mg, and I digitally restore it using photoshop. It would be a tremendous amount of work. They weren’t taken by professional photographers so there’s a lot of scratches a lot of dust. A lot of negatives deteriorate even more.

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Tompkins Square Park, 1930

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Trolley car traffic

Ray Simone, vintage NYC

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
West 31st Street, 1931

Ray Simone, vintage NYC
Williamsburg Bridge, 1930


All photographs © Ray Simone

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