By Anne Cartier-Bresson

Research in Photographic Conservation

Conservation image

One of the particularities of the history of photography is its close association with scientific research in chemistry, physics, and optics. This was the case from its very inception, and it was especially apparent in photography's early years. The pursuit of better technical results and greater image stability was led by the inventors of photographic techniques and was quickly taken up by photographic societies, the first of which were the Royal Photographic Society and the Société Française de Photographie.

The evolution of photographic technology in the modern era and its commercial expansion have created a situation in which photographers generally know less than they once did about the nature of the materials with which they work. In the 1980s, developments in the marketplace spurred the rapid growth of new digital imaging and color processing techniques. Meanwhile, over the course of the last century, entire realms of photographic history have disappeared because of diminished interest and the dispersion of integral collections.

However, the increasing awareness of the history of photography and of the need for better preservation methods should provide new impetus for explorations into the conservation of photography within the framework of art conservation. At the same time, the tremendous rise in the number of photographic techniques used today naturally leads to research in these areas. Conservation efforts should not be concentrated solely on historical photographs and on the photographs of artists who use specialized or historical techniques. They must also accommodate the work of artists whose photography is more conceptual or documentary—as well as confront the increasing number of unconventional ways that artists mount photographic works.

There are two fronts on which photographic conservation research will continue to develop. The first is research in physical and chemical processes, conducted by chemists, physicists, and other scientific researchers. The second, applied research, is closely related to case studies conducted by conservators. There are at least several key areas where research should be pursued.

Conservation image

Noninvasive analysis of photographic materials: The exact composition and structure of a number of early photographic techniques are not as well known as they should be. Simple, nondestructive technical analyses would provide art historians and conservators with vital information. More sophisticated applications can determine which metals are present, indicating the nature of sensitive layers and of the toning methods used by a photographer. Identifying organic materials helps determine binders or possible protective layers on a photograph's surface. In addition, the in-depth study of photographic material would enable cultural institutions, collection curators, and the art market itself to assess the authenticity of historical prints.

Study of deterioration mechanisms in photographic materials: Potential alterations of digital or classical photographic materials—and the impact of nontraditional mounting techniques—are still relatively unknown. The results of comparative studies of deterioration would advance conservation methods that are suitable for new artistic practices. Reliable methods of testing color alteration over time would enable improved conservation management of photographs, particularly in relation to the effects of exhibition on images.

Evaluation of restoration and preventive conservation methods: A great number of studies are still needed to determine appropriate conservation methods and to evaluate their effects over time. Results disseminated by organizations such as the International Council of Museums, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, and the International Institute of Conservation could be made more accessible in databases or through Web portals. The level and means of accessibility of this data should be defined as soon as possible, while also making certain that the sensitivity of the object and the complexity of the procedure are considered. Because each conservation intervention is effectively a case unto itself, it is important to avoid promoting difficult treatments that could inadvertently damage a work. In addition, widespread dissemination of information on the exact composition and possible negative effects of commercial materials and products used for conservation should be a priority.

Conservation image

Better use of digital imaging technologies: If preservation of the artifact is the primary concern—in addition to determining physical changes in materials and the effects of treatments—digital imaging and data instrumentation guidelines are necessary to better monitor and categorize material changes over time. A more extensive dissemination of standards for new techniques would also aid conservators tremendously. Collections would be best served by the establishment of standards related to reproduction quality and increased accessibility of image and data banks.

Beyond the development of certain areas of research, the field also would benefit from the creation of networks. The challenges facing the conservation of photographic material result from the newness of the discipline itself. But these challenges can be met if our responses are well thought through from the start. The use of cross- disciplinary teams of historians, conservators, and scientists working on various aspects of photographic conservation is an exemplary model. Improving international collaborations would lead to the development of a common language in a world where research priorities often depend on specific economic and geographic circumstances. Such collaborations would also constitute a consolidating force at a time when the circulation of photographs is intense.

Historically, photography has always challenged assumptions. This is why, along with the concrete results of all sorts of specific research, photographic research itself is always questioning, through examination, objects that are becoming simultaneously more and more prevalent and less and less understood.

Anne Cartier-Bresson is the director of l'Atelier de Restauration et de Conservation des Photographies de la Ville de Paris.

Education in Photographic Conservation
By Mogens S. Koch

Conservation image

Awareness of preservation problems for photographs dates back to photography's inception in the mid-19th century. Early on, it became evident that this new medium had fundamental preservation challenges, in particular with the permanence of the image.

However, it was not until the latter part of the 20th century that conserving photographs emerged as a professional pursuit. The first photographic conservator in the United States was employed at the George Eastman House in Rochester in 1965. Another decade passed before existing art conservation schools began offering programs in photographic conservation.

Conservation image

In 1976 the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation established the first educational program in photographic conservation. Two years later, the Art Conservation Department at Buffalo State College awarded a master's degree to its first student specializing in photographic conservation. Academic programs in the subject developed in Europe at about the same time. In the spring of 1977, the School of Conservation at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen initiated a program in the school's Department of Graphic Arts.

Today, students interested in photographic conservation enroll in general conservation programs and then specialize in photography. Currently there are only a handful of conservation programs in North America with a full photographic conservation curriculum. In Europe, there are over a dozen such programs.

While most programs offer master's degrees, there are differences in requirements and in emphasis in curriculum. Some programs require the completion of a thesis, with subjects that run the gamut from the theoretical to the practical. Other programs, in contrast, have internships ranging from half a year to two yearlong internships; these provide students the opportunity to work more independently and to apply their skills in a workshop setting. Some programs focus on the preservation of graphic documents and library materials, while others address a wider range of conservation disciplines, including textiles, paintings, and objects as part of their core curriculum.

An important recent contribution to the field is the Mellon Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation, a collaboration of the George Eastman House and the Image Permanence Institute of the Rochester Institute of Technology. This two-year program—established with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—provides highly specialized and advanced training for a select group of young conservation professionals, helping them develop a thorough understanding of photographic history, chemistry, and deterioration mechanisms, as well as of the technology and identification of the wide range of photographic processes and types.

Conservation image

Photographic material may be preserved for a variety of reasons and purposes. These factors influence the direction of conservation and, ultimately, of education and training. In Europe, with a long tradition of valuing photography for its information content—as opposed to primarily for its artistic content—the photographic negative has been viewed as an archival product whose treatment is necessary to fulfill a utilitarian purpose: to make high-quality prints. For this reason, there has been a greater emphasis on the treatment of historic negatives in Europe than in the United States. Certainly, negative collections are also the focus of many prominent U.S. collections, but in Europe, more attention is given to intervention with negative collections. To a certain extent, this difference is reflected in education and training program curricula.

Photographic conservation—and education in the field—must strike a balance in emphasis between the treatment of individual works and more holistic approaches to entire collections. What must be conserved are individual photos of varying value and lasting quality and large photographic collections that collectively need care. In European education programs, about 70 percent of course work is devoted to individual treatments; the remaining 30 percent concentrates on care of collections. I hope that in the future there will be more emphasis on management and less emphasis on individual treatment. With appropriate management, we can preserve more—at a lower cost—than we can with hands-on conservation.

Conservation image

In the next 10 to 20 years, I see photographic conservation education becoming more specialized and covering more topics. I expect that photographic conservators will be grouped in four main areas: prints, negatives, movies, and modern media. The category of modern media itself will be divided into two quite different areas—materials produced from digital files (such as ink-jet prints) and digital storage media (such as CDs). (In the photographic conservation program at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, the preservation of digital media is already a part of the curriculum.) As with other disciplines, as photography evolves, it will be impossible to provide students with all the knowledge necessary for the full spectrum of conservation work. Perhaps the curriculum for photographic conservation will be split into two majors—one in analog, the other in digital. The digitalization of photography will have an important effect on all photographic conservation programs. We will have to deal with the stability of file formats, storage media, ink-jet prints, and other printing media in a rapidly changing world of manufactured media. These will be difficult challenges.

Photographic conservation research will have an impact on education in the field. Topics that I believe merit additional research include surface cleaning of photographs, chemical treatment methods, evaluation of different treatment methods used by conservation workshops, and design of exercise materials with known damage phenomena for training in treatment methods.

Conservation image

Beyond research, one of the greatest benefits would be the establishment of an international forum for faculty from schools of photographic conservation. Over the years, informal contacts have linked faculty and programs. For instance, my program, the School of Conservation in Copenhagen, has maintained close cooperation with North American institutions such as the National Archives in Canada, the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, the Image Permanence Institute, and the University of Delaware. These institutions have greatly influenced the organization and content of the Danish program.

But now, a more formal and ongoing means of exchange is needed. To create such a forum initially would require an international gathering where faculty would meet to exchange experiences, knowledge, teaching methods, and course materials and to discuss the outlines of the aesthetic, theoretical, and practical knowledge necessary for photographic conservators.

Conservation image

The goal of such a gathering would be to achieve some consensus on the content of a professional education and training program. In a paper presented at the 1996 ICOM-CC meeting in Scotland, Nora Kennedy, photographic conservator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggested what the core competencies in photographic conservation might be. She concluded that the field needed to work toward defining "the minimum level of knowledge, skills, and education that can and should be required of a conservator entering the field." I concur. While all photography conservation programs need not be exactly the same, some agreement is necessary on the minimum criteria for a photographic conservator.

There is also a need for continuing professional educational opportunities, such as the Mellon Collaborative Workshops in Photograph Conservation. This sort of approach should cover other countries and include one- to two-week workshops in special topics, led by individuals with extensive experience in the area being covered. An example of this is the training component of Safeguarding European Photographic Images for Access (SEPIA), a European Union-funded project that includes seminars to teach teachers, in order to expand the pool of experts able to provide training. More such efforts are necessary to equip conservators dealing with the preservation of our visual memory.

Mogens S. Koch teaches conservation of photography at the School of Conservation of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.

Photographic Conservators: A Part of the Process
By Roy Flukinger

Conservation image

As a curator, conservators and conservation scientists are no strangers to me. Long before the Harry Ransom Center, where I work, set up its own conservation department some 20 years ago, I had sought out those few acknowledged experts in the field of photographic conservation whenever we faced an especially troublesome problem of preservation or identification. I learned early on that these individuals did not approach things exactly as I would. They tended to attack a problem with the open skepticism, practiced patience, and obsessive attention to detail that had made my delicate, humanist soul wince through all those required high school and college courses in biology and physics.

Conservation image

In the process, however, the photographic conservators invariably produced results and provided me with insights and options that gave me more opportunities to do the right thing for the photographs in my charge. They saw a question not "for better or for worse" than I but simply from a different perspective—a perspective that improved my chances of making a good decision about the original question I had brought to them. So now, after some initial trial and error, the Ransom Center continues to be one of the fortunate institutions that have a full-time photographic conservator on staff, and the result is an ongoing and positive educational process for my associates and me.

Despite the wide variety of types of institutions that employ us, we photographic curators do face many common challenges: preserving and protecting the collection, providing for its organization and access, seeing to its interpretation and presentation, adding to its quantity and quality, and contributing to the professional field. In taking on such a vast responsibility, we seek out a wide number and variety of resources to help us with the large organizational, managerial, scholarly, and bureaucratic aspects of the profession—everything from books to researchers, networking to teaching, and archiving to fund-raising.

Conservation image

One of the very best resources for any manager of a photography collection is, quite naturally, the photographic conservator. The assistance, insight, and perspective of conservators are invaluable in countless ways. As one might expect, they help us identify processes and provide treatment for our valuable objects. But that is just the beginning. They also guide us in setting standards and defining goals for preservation housing and care. They optimize the quality of such critical procedures as loans, exhibition preparation, staff training, and patron education. They provide critical and expert help that enriches all of the staff in the preservation and conservation aspects of even such nontraditional functions as promotion, acquisitions, publications, teaching, development, and administration.

In short, the best conservator of photographs does not simply stay in the lab treating objects. He or she is also part of the larger process and plays a significant daily role in most facets of the institution's operation. The opportunity I have had to work side by side over many years with Barbara Brown, the Ransom Center's photographic conservator, has helped me to learn and grow as a curator who must constantly deal honestly with challenging questions and qualitative decision making. That Barbara is ultimately able to do her job amid my flights of imagination, impulsiveness, and abstract theorizing may be yet another positive quality of conservators.

Conservation image

Finally, beyond the day-to-day and the merely institutional, there are some more lean and muscular concepts that have emerged in my work with a good photographic conservator. While these concepts may not be universal, they are at least grounded in a practical truthfulness that can make all of us—curator, conservator, and administrator alike—more effective. In no particular order, they are:

  • Never assume. But if you do, always test your assumptions. Conservators, like historians, are born questioners.
  • "Photography is an evolutionary science." That observation came from one of my favorite photo historians, William Jerome Harrison, in 1887, and it is every bit as true today as it was then. As any conservator can tell you, things will keep changing. Do not get too comfortable.
  • Taking no action—or making no decision—is, of course, always making a big decision. It may be right or wrong, and there may be no way to tell at the time, but it is a decision nonetheless.
  • Trust your instinct. It should not be ignored. Some of the brightest insights I have observed have come from conservators' hearts as well as from their heads.
  • Never give up, but know when to pause. Some answers are better found and some decisions better made after you return to the problem later.
  • If you do things right, you will end up with more questions than answers. Believe it or not, this is good.
  • History and science—like curators and conservators—are very different creatures. But they do have this in common: they both recognize that truth is an elusive thing, and while we may never attain it, we must never cease searching for it.

Conservation image Conservation image
Enlarge Enlarge

The last point may be the most important of all, because it reflects the continuing quest of both our professions. The search for truth is ultimately a faith-based journey, and it lies at the heart of nearly all solid conservation practice. And even if ultimately all photographs are fleeting, it is nonetheless inspirational to see photographic conservators striving to find what is true in each and every image.
Just perhaps, the best conservators are those who help us restore faith along with restoring photographs.

Roy Flukinger is senior curator of photography and film at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.