As digital photography technology replaces chemical (or classical) photography, there is a danger that this transition will result in a decrease in knowledge of and scientific research into chemical photography. The consequence would be the loss of crucial information about past artistic, commercial, and experimental photographic processes and technologies.
During the chemical photography era, photographs were created using more than 150 different photographic processes, starting with the so-called First Photograph, created by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, and virtually ending in 2005, when Kodak discontinued production of black-and-white photographic paper. The countless photographs produced in this period now reside in numerous historical and art museums, as well as in libraries, archives, and personal collections around the world.
Unfortunately, the chemical nature of many of these photographs usually is not obvious. Photographs in collections are often described in registrar databases simply as photographs (or listed according to their subject matter), without indication of the photographic process used to create them. In many instances, even when a process is specified, the information might be wrong. Without knowing the chemical nature and physical structure of a photograph, it is difficult to prescribe conditions for its storage or exhibition that will help ensure its preservation, and it is difficult as well to determine appropriate conservation treatment.
For a number of years, Getty Conservation Institute research on photographs has focused on the development of a scientifically based methodology that would allow photograph curators, collection managers, and conservators to not only recognize all of the major processes from the chemical photography era but also to identify minor processes and process variants that are sometimes difficult to ascertain.
An important element of GCI research is to collect and analyze well-known and well-identified photographs that were created using all of the photographic processes of the chemical photography era. While few professional, art, or amateur photographers may use these photographic processes today, there remains an important segment of the photography community that not only employs many of these historical processes but also keeps these processes alive by conducting historical research, experimenting with different formulas and recipes, and using many of these processes in creative work. Several photographers revived old or historical photographic processes in the 1960s, and their activity is best known as the alternative photographic process movement.
In early 2009, GCI scientists established connections with members of the alternative photographic processes community through an alternative photography website (www.alternativephotograpy.com). Members of this community were invited to join the GCI in the Institute's quest to preserve the material heritage of chemical photography and to help build and maintain an important depository at the GCI of well-described and scientifically studied samples of alternative-process photographs.
To make this collaboration mutually beneficial, GCI researchers have been sharing scientific findings with project participants and with the conservation community at large, using project updates and dissemination of the work through publications and presentations.1
Of the many photograph types sent by the alternative photography community to the GCI for analysis, the most frequent submissions were cyanotype photographs—process variants, as well as toning and coating modified cyanotype images. Cyanotypes were also both the largest and smallest photographs analyzed by the GCI. The largest cyanotype was hand delivered from Argentina from the studio of Juan Manuel Ipiña. Elemental analysis of this cyanotype showed the presence of small amounts of manganese, which is not usually found in cyanotype photographs. Analysis of the uncoated and unprocessed paper substrate showed that manganese, together with iron, is responsible for the dark brown color of the paper substrate and is not a component of the cyanotype process.
Monitoring by GCI staff of online alternative-process discussion groups revealed that the quality and consistency of printing papers is a critical issue for most alternative photography artists. Changes in paper chemistry or in paper manufacturing have a great and often negative effect on an artist's work. After conducting hundreds of analyses of different papers from the GCI's Reference Collection and of submitted samples, we found differences in the chemistry of various papers (including different fillers, such as calcium carbonate, white clay, and titanium dioxide) that were sufficient, in some cases, to enable us, through the use GCI lab instruments, to identify the company that manufactured the paper. GCI analysis of modern iron-process prints also provides artists with insight into their success when clearing residual iron from the print. This helps to predict potential changes of print tonality due to aging—knowledge that can ultimately assist in the future conservation of these images.
New York platinotypist Bruce Beck sent the GCI several platinum-palladium photographs printed with different, well-defined and recorded proportions of platinum and palladium sensitizing solutions. Analysis of these photographs showed that the 1995 print did not contain any titanium dioxide, the 1998 photograph had a small amount, and the 2001 print contained a substantially higher concentration. Finding different amounts of titanium in photographs provides an important clue for dating papers—i.e., the capability to sort them according to pre- and post-1995 categories.
Quinn Jacobson in Belgium uses different wet collodion photographic processes. When creating his modern ambrotype photographs, he selected a black glass used by contemporary stained glass artists as his substrate. The GCI's X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis of Quinn's ambrotype proved more complex than expected. Besides the glass components of silicon and calcium, analysis also detected chemical elements responsible for the glass's black color (chromium, manganese, iron, and cobalt). Also detected were high concentrations of barium, strontium, and zirconium, elements not present in nineteenth-century glass—again, a marker for distinguishing modern ambrotypes from earlier ones.
Photosynthesis and anthotype prints sent by New Zealand photographer Rosemary Horn offered the first opportunity to measure the light stability of these photographic processes. Using the GCI's microfadeometer—an instrument for determining the light sensitivity of an object—the GCI has been able to develop initial data on how fast these images fade. This information contributes to our long-term understanding of the image stability of the different processes from the chemical photography era.
The case studies discussed here represent just a few results generated by the ongoing collaboration with the alternative-process photography community. Even as digital photography becomes the leading photographic technology, the alternative photographic process movement remains the main descendant of almost two hundred years of chemical photography. Because chemical photographs created today will be historical photographs of the future, now is the time to prepare the conservation and research methodology that will be needed for their long-term preservation.
Dusan C. Stulik is a GCI senior scientist. Art Kaplan is a GCI research lab associate.
1. Dusan Stulik and Art Kaplan, "Glorious collaboration: Working with the alternative photographic process community," presentation at ICOM-CC Interim Meeting 2010, Athens, Greece, 19–22 October 2010. Art Kaplan and Dusan Stulik, "Saving the heritage of the chemical photography era: Working with the alternative process community," presentation at APIS 2011, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 6–8 October 2011. Dusan Stulik and Art Kaplan, "Alternative process photography and science meet at the Getty," 7 March 2012; www.alternativephotography.com/wp/alt-proc/alternative-process-photography-and-science-meet-at-the-getty.