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Billy The Kid – Part 1

Posted on March 30th, 2015
Billy The Kid - before and after

Billy The Kid, a.k.a. William H. Bonney a.k.a. William Antrim a.k.a. William Henry McCarty, jr. (his real name) is one of the most famous of the Wild West outlaws. He has been a popular character for writers of both fact and fiction. He has been portrayed numerous times in films and on television. There is even a ballet (by Aaron Copland) based on his story.

A photograph of Bonney has survived (available from Wikimedia).

It is a tintype (also known as a ferrotype) and is quite damaged and corroded. Here I show what I did to improve the image. The colorization will shown in In Billy The Kid – Part 2.

Initial work is to rotate and crop the picture. Then, after desaturating, adjust the light curve to get a better brightness and contrast. The picture is also flipped horizontally because the tintype process produced a mirror image of the subject being photographed. When this picture of Bonney first came to light people, not understanding the process, thought it showed that he was left-handed because of the position of his revolver.

A noticeable improvement already but it also shows up the areas that need work. Bonney requires some major reconstructive surgery. The most important areas are labelled in the picture below.

  1. The face
  2. Upper body clothing and gun belt
  3. The hands
  4. Trousers
  5. Boots
  6. Winchester rifle
  7. The environment

A. The face

The face is the centre of attention in any portrait and careful work is required here to bring out Bonney’s character from the oxidised pits and scratches that obscure it. A certain amount of artistry and interpretation is needed. For instance, is that a hint of a beard on his chin? I decided that the answer was no, he was clean shaven and worked the area accordingly. His left eyebrow needs particular attention to get it to look natural. He certainly wasn’t a handsome lad, being big-eared with buck teeth but there is an obvious arrogant and confident look about him that needs to shine through in the finished image.
As with all areas I used a combination of clone tool, dodge/burn tool and paintbrush. Part of the allure of old photographs is their grainy quality. Keeping the grain consistent is difficult but worth the effort. It precludes the use of the blur and smudge tools, in areas where they were used they would ruin the grain and stand out like a sore thumb.

B. The upper body

Here Bonney is sporting the attire that any self respecting gunslinger of the Wild West would be proud to wear. That shirt is pretty snazzy and one of the best preserved parts of the photograph. It’s of a type known as a ‘shield front shirt’. The waistcoat has some corrosion which needs to be removed while preserving and recreating the natural shadows that emphasise the subtle folds. The woollen cardigan is better preserved but needed some careful work with the clone tool to remove scratches.
The gun belt is largely fine but the buckle area needed a bit of recreating.

C. The hands

His left hand, resting on the barrel of his Winchester rifle, has only a few spots to repair. His right, however, is practically obliterated and needs a lot of reconstruction. Tools used: clone, dodge and patience.
It’s not clear whether that’s a ring on his little finger or a bandage. Luckily it can be left alone.

D. The trousers

This part of the tintype has taken the brunt of the whips and scornes of time. While it’s a large area to work on, luckily, there are no complicated details or patterns to recreate.

E. The boots

The upper part of the boots, like the trousers, are heavily damaged. An internet search for ‘cowboy boots’ provides enough reference material to enable an educated guess as to how they should be shaped.

F. The Winchester rifle

The rifle is an 1873 Winchester Carbine 44-40 Calibre. His side-arm is a single action Colt. There is a lot of reference material on the internet for historical firearms.

F. The Environment

By the environment I mean the parts of the picture that aren’t the subject. Here the wall, floor and the object to the right. This is a reflector to brighten the shadowed areas.

I decided to leave the walls and floor pretty much untouched, just filling in missing parts at the corner and heavily damaged areas adjacent to the subject. In the original photo you can see the fingers of the photographers assistant holding up the reflector and I decided to remove these. I don’t usually like to make changes to historical pictures on aesthetic grounds but in this case they are distracting and not a major loss to the historical accuracy of the image.

The Finished Photograph

In Billy The Kid – Part 2 we will look at the colorization of this picture