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As NYC changes, one Brooklyn photographer restores its past from old photo negatives

“I like looking at a different period of time, a simpler time, a quieter time when things weren’t hectic,” said Williamsburg photographer Ray Simone.

With its bustling streets, beautiful parks and ever-growing number of skyscrapers, New York City is an iconic city to photograph, especially now in the age of Instagram, but not for Brooklyn photographer Ray Simone, who’d much rather get lost among images of old New York.

“As we’ve transitioned from analog to the digital age, things like Times Square have been photographed to death,” Simone told Metro at his Williamsburg studio last week. “For me, I like to look at old photographs of Times Square from the ’40s or ’20s with an old car or a cop on a horse or a kid with knickers on — that’s what I appreciate more. I like looking at a different period of time, a simpler time, a quieter time when things weren’t hectic.”

Simone started collecting photographs of Old Hollywood, particularly slapstick acts like Laurel and Hardy, at age 10. Every weekend, he’d sift through boxes of photographs at the flea markets held in the long-gone open lots along 14th Street and other areas of Manhattan.

“One day, I saw camera negatives mixed into a box of photographs, and it became, I don’t want to use the word ‘obsessive,’ but …,” he said with a laugh.

A few decades went by, and Simone’s collection of old negatives acquired from flea markets, garage sales, antique shops and auctions grew until he decided to start printing and retouching and restoring the images.

A painstaking photography passion

Before Simone restores those old, found negatives — some of which date back to the 1800s while many others are of New York City — he cleans them with air or chemicals to remove what dust and scratches he can.

“Then I painstakingly, piece-by-piece, draw and work with the exposure and contrast until it’s finally done,” he said. “I’m obsessive. I go a little too much as far as my restoration is concerned.”

The time it takes for Simone to restore the images in Photoshop from the negatives varies every time, but some photographs can take an entire workweek — or more. For example, an image of a Brooklyn Bridge trolley car from a circa 1910 glass-plate negative took 40 hours, in addition to the week it took Simone just to remove the old newspaper wrapped around the negatives. 

His record is the negative he’s currently working on that features Yankees legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig with an unidentified man. 

“This is Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s best year as a team. This is the 1927 Yankees, and they were nicknamed ‘Murderers’ Row’ because they were relentless,” Simone said. “It’s a real camera negative, and I’ve been working on this one already too long.”

Naturally, Simone has come across more than a few fakes in his day, especially with Old Hollywood images, but his photographer’s eye helps him spot them right away.

“It could be a photograph of a photograph being sold as a negative; you’ll see the borders come out black because everything is in reverse,” he explained.

While Simone thoroughly enjoys getting lost in the past with his negative restoration, his passion project is mostly a labor of love right now.

“I thought someone would catch on, but I haven’t really sold much,” he said.

Nor has he found anyone else who restores old photo negatives like he does, but he remains undeterred, even as cellphones have replaced traditional cameras for many people.

“I’ll always be able to find negatives, especially as film cameras are making a comeback.”

To see Ray Simone’s photo restorations, visit photogallerynyc.com or @nyc.classicshots on Instagram.