In 2001 the GCI launched a large research project, Research on the Conservation of Photographs, to advance techniques for identifying all major and significant variants of photographic processes from the chemical-photography era—a research area of critical importance to preserving the world's photographic heritage (see Conservation, Vol.17, no.1).
Over the course of several years, GCI scientists analyzed thousands of nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographs using nondestructive and noncontact X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF). This analytical research has shown that the baryta layer of most black-and-white photographic papers contains chemical elements of barium and strontium. The concentration of these elements reflects the sources of raw materials and the technology of photographic paper production, which varied by manufacturer and from year to year. GCI scientists have determined that the internal chemical composition of most common twentieth-century black-and-white photographs varies enough to allow researchers to establish a work's provenance and to authenticate photographs.
With this knowledge, the GCI's scientific research has focused on development of an objective, scientifically based methodology for establishing provenance and authenticating twentieth-century black-and-white photographs. Now in its implementation stage, this new methodology was thoroughly tested and recently applied in a large international, collaborative, and multidisciplinary research project focused on the photographic work of twentieth-century photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The results of the project were presented at the centennial Henri Cartier-Bresson symposium, "Colloque Revoir Henri Cartier-Bresson," held in November 2008 at the Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, as part of the 2008 Paris Photo fair.
The GCI project team worked closely with French photograph conservators from the Atelier de Restauration et de Conservation des Photographies de la Ville de Paris, art historians from the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, students of the Institut National du Patrimoine, and photograph conservators and curators from several museums in Paris. Together they analyzed a large number of Henri Cartier-Bresson photographic prints dated from 1929 to 2004, when Cartier-Bresson or his printers produced the iconic photographs that are now in the collections of many important museums around the world.
This collaborative project represents the first systematic, large-scale application of this new methodology to the work of a single photographer. It illustrates the way elemental analysis of photographs and the resulting database of analytical results can be used to solve important provenance and authentication issues. The project also shows the significant benefits of applying conservation science methodologies to art-historical issues, as well as the advantages of close collaboration and idea exchanges
For further information on the Research on the Conservation of Photographs project, visit the Getty Web site.