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Is it possible, say with Lion recovery partition or any other way, to access individual files on the hard drive to copy them before reformatting it to do a clean install?

It is not possible to boot Mac OS in "any flavor" as it always fails loading kernel - including safe mode or single user.

It is an early MacBook Air, so it is not possible to use "Target Disk" mode.

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You can boot your system from a system installed on an external drive. If your internal drive isn't damaged it will mount and you can copy files off of it.

If you have a Lion recovery partition you can use Disk Utility to "image" the main partition of your drive onto an external device before you format and reinstall. You will have to restore this image onto another device before you can pull files off of it.

It is arguably eqsier reinstall Lion directly on top of the existing OS which should create a bootable system without overwriting your files–but to be safe, make a backup image before doing this.

Insert mandatory lecture about the importance of a good backup strategy which should make emergency measures like this largely unnecessary.

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Thanks for your answer - it has lighted a bulb in my head that I could try to "image" my disk to some file on huge external drive and then mount it on another Mac and try to recover data. But then after starting recovery partition I noticed Terminal is there (which, somehow, I couldn't see before) - thus it is possible to easier access data. Regarding backup strategy - my Time Capsule just died a week or two ago. Bad coincidence of circumstances. :S –  Krizz Mar 13 '12 at 16:51
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I have just realized that when booted with Lion Recovery Partition it is possible to run Terminal. It is available in Utilities* menu.

You have your hard drive(s) already mounted in /Volumes and you can plug your USB drive and copy your files using Terminal. Life (or at least data) saved.

*or at least I think it is Utilities - I have a non-English locale.

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