In 2000, the Getty Conservation Institute and the Image Permanence Institute (IPI), a part of the Rochester Institute of Technology, organized a meeting to identify the needs for research in photographic conservation and to evaluate possible projects that could address those needs. Attending the Rochester meeting were professionals in conservation science, photographic conservation, training, archives management, and curatorship. A major outcome of the gathering was a new project on the conservation of photographic collections, undertaken collaboratively by the GCI, the IPI, and the Centre de recherches sur la conservation des documents graphiques (CRCDG) in Paris. The ultimate aim of the project is to provide a foundation for the later development of new tools to diagnose the causes of deterioration of photographic materials, and for the development of new treatment and preventive conservation strategies for these materials.
We asked James Reilly, director of the IPI, and Bertrand Lavédrine, director of the CRCDG, to share their thoughts on current issues in the conservation of photographs. Photographic conservators Marc Harnly, with the Getty Museum, and Teresa Mesquit, with the Getty Research Institute, joined in the discussion.
They spoke with Dusan Stulik—a GCI senior scientist and the Institute's manager for the conservation of photographic collections project—and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin:The 2000 Rochester meeting identified the need for a major initiative in photographic conservation, which hasn't received the same level of scientific support as other branches of art conservation. Why hasn't photography, at least until now, gotten that kind of attention?
James Reilly: I think it reflects the art consciousness of society in general. The long debate about whether photography is art was largely over by the 1980s, and you saw an increased interest in photography, both as art and as a historical document. The public became much more ready to accept photography, and the art market responded. Major museums began to collect, and prices for important art pieces in photography rose. From both the historical and the art perspectives, photography just came up in everyone's consciousness. And by extension, the need for scientific research and the conservation of photographs came to the fore.
Bertrand Lavédrine: I agree. There have been collections of photographs since the 19th century, but the willingness to create a museum photographic collection at the level of a drawing or a painting collection is recent—maybe 30 years old, depending upon the country. For instance, certain French institutions, such as libraries, archived huge collections of photographs, but it was only after the 1970s that photographic prints appeared in museums. Compared to paintings, photographs still represent a small proportion of collections in museums. It seems logical that scientific support was given first to solving problems concerning the most valuable or the highest number of artifacts. For the general public, and even for some professionals, photographs were considered valuable documents but not art objects.
Marc Harnly: The only thing I can add is that photography is a very new medium. To an extent, it's natural that its appreciation as art has lagged behind other disciplines like painting or drawing, which have been researched, appreciated, and displayed for hundreds of years. Plus, there are still people in the art world today who unfortunately do not view photography as an art. I think history will prove them wrong.
James Reilly: The public's appreciation of fine art photographs took a tremendous leap in the 1960s and 1970s, when it became possible in books to photomechanically reproduce photographs more faithfully, to convey their original color and tone. Until then, reproductions in books were all black and white. Albumen prints, for instance, were reproduced in black and white. This rich tapestry of processes was unfamiliar to people because they didn't see it. They had no way to experience it except to look at the original objects. And these weren't being displayed. As people learned more about photographs as objects, they began to appreciate them as artistic achievements.
Bertrand Lavédrine: The recognition of photography as a fine art has not seen a continuous rise. In the 19th century, people appreciated photographs as an art form more than they did in the 1950s. The industrialization of photography and consumer photography played a role in identifying photography as a current object but not as a fine art object. Now it's enjoying a renaissance.
Jeffrey Levin: How well do we understand the diversity of experimentation that occurred in the mid-19th century, when photography was in its early stages—and how does our knowledge of the first decades of photography affect our ability to conserve photographs from that period?
James Reilly: We know from writings and publications at the time about the general lines people were pursuing. But when you're confronted with a specific photograph made in this early period, you're really not sure what was done because they were inventing the processes. The breadth of things that were tried and achieved in the mid-19th century always surprises us.
Bertrand Lavédrine: Even if the necessary technical data about photography were available, there are so many uncontrolled parameters—the quality of the chemical used, the treatment, post-treatment, and natural aging—that it is difficult to rely only on this technical information to predict their fragility and permanence.
Jeffrey Levin: Teresa, Marc, in your experience with photographs from that period, how has the lack of knowledge about the level of experimentation affected the way you work?
Teresa Mesquit: I encounter lots of photographs that I'm not entirely able to identify by visual means alone. In some cases it's difficult to know, for example, whether you're looking at an albumen print or at a salt print with a light albumen binder. Curators and cataloguers can be a great help, because they may know the greater scope of a photographer's work. Still, many variants of processing and toning methods, coatings, and so on, remain obscure to us. But it's possible they'll be quantified and described with the help of different technologies. The more we glean from the examples we have of early photography—and from the results of analysis—the more informed our approach will be.
Marc Harnly: I certainly agree. We continually encounter photographs with technical origins that can't be determined precisely. As a result, conservators approach their work conservatively. If there are certain questions about a photograph we can't answer, then we don't consider treatment that could result in an irreversible change. So yes, we are sometimes limited because we don't know all the details of the process that created the photograph.
Jeffrey Levin: What do each of you see as the priorities in terms of the needs for research in the conservation of photographs?
James Reilly: For me, the 2000 meeting confirmed a lot of things I'd been thinking about. The key idea that came out of that meeting was that the priorities mostly had to do with the characterization of the photograph as object. There were four purposes for characterization that were swirling around at that meeting. One was to be able to monitor a photograph's condition. This would be very useful in the exhibition and treatment of photographs—knowing whether they've changed. The second purpose for characterization research was authentication. Is this a forgery? Does this object fit with the other body of work that a photographer had? This benefits institutions, curators, dealers, and collectors. The third purpose was for the institutional and scholarly tasks of cataloguing and describing. What kind of paper is it on? What kind of image does it have? How was it made? Finally, characterization research assists with scholarship and teaching. The approaches developed through a characterization initiative would help scholars understand the techniques used and make it possible to teach others about those techniques more effectively.
Marc Harnly: Characterization is important, as Jim says, because it encompasses so many aspects of study. As a conservator, researching the effects of treatments is also important. Each new generation of conservators in all disciplines does things slightly differently than the previous one as a result of scientific research. For example, surface cleaning of photographs is something that was once done more routinely than it is today. Research on albumen prints showed that on the microscopic level, not necessarily visible to the naked eye, treatment was changing the binder of these prints just by using the standard surface cleaning techniques at the time. Today, with that knowledge, conservators approach surface cleaning more carefully. While I'd like to believe that my conservation practices are the best, research may prove in the future that some could have been better.
Teresa Mesquit: In looking for ways to help characterize photographs, I wonder if there is an untapped resource outside institutions in the form of private collectors and dealers, many of whom have built up an invaluable expertise in photo history and techniques. Because of the sheer volume of what passes through their hands, they may have a visual knowledge that perhaps we don't have. Are there alliances out there that we could be forming? I don't have much contact with the private collecting world or the commercial manufacturing of photographic materials, but Jim, through your work, you must have a sense of that.
James Reilly: There's a lot of knowledge about the materials in the industry and certainly in collecting institutions and among private conservators. It would be very nice to tap into this through the creation of databases or didactic tools.
Bertrand Lavédrine: Characterization of photographic material is one of the priorities that came out of the Rochester meeting. Depending on the country, institution, and collection, priorities can change. Priority is often linked to a specific environment at a given time and in a given place.
James Reilly: I don't mean to imply that no other issues were brought forward at the Rochester meeting. There were certainly things like cold storage, gelatin problems, and research on the long-term effects of treatments that would involve accelerated aging, as well as just evaluating the effectiveness of a treatment right after it's done. There's a big mismatch between the needs of the field and the scientific resources available to it. In my mind, if we had to choose one thing, it would be characterization research. But that doesn't mean it's the only thing worth doing.
Dusan Stulik: You cannot deal with the problem of aging if you don't know what you are aging. The same is true with exhibition and storage. Characterization research got on top at the Rochester meeting because it was connected with most of the issues that we discussed there. It's important to get scientific research on photography to the same level as scientific research on painting.
James Reilly: Conservation—and, by extension, conservation science—exists to support the appreciation and usefulness of photographs in society. The special contribution that the conservator and the conservation scientist make to the discussion is to understand and speak for the object so that registrars or curators or collectors know more about what they're dealing with. How was it made? What are its characteristics? When we ask ourselves what will make the greatest contribution to the larger issues, characterization research makes the most sense.
Bertrand Lavédrine: The majority of the participants at the Rochester meeting were people dealing with fine art collections. If you had gathered people from archives and libraries, perhaps these priorities would have been different. They would have emphasized more collections management. We still have lots of questions regarding enclosure materials, cold storage, negative storage, and other issues for which we do not have easy answers when dealing with a large collection. And preserving the integrity of images is essential if we want to transmit them to future generations and be able to perform characterization once the image has gained historic or aesthetic value—many photographic prints that were once considered documentation are now recognized as fine art.
James Reilly: Yes, there are plenty of examples of photographs that were produced as documentation, and later it was recognized that the photographer had great visual ability or was a technical genius who combined a great eye with interesting or beautiful subject matter. When all those things come together, objects considered relatively unimportant suddenly become very important. But we need to realize that there are literally billions of photographs in private and institutional collections. If we're doing conservation research that benefits primarily those few identified as fine art, are we neglecting the rest that need to be managed in a different way? All of us in photographic conservation research have to keep our eye on both camps.
Dusan Stulik: But don't you think that whenever you do some research that targets art photography, there is a benefit for archival photography or storage? The knowledge can go from one camp to the other.
James Reilly: Very easily. That's true.
Teresa Mesquit: Even though larger institutions seem to have their preservation programs in place, there are countless important collections still in forgotten boxes in basements. Recently here in Los Angeles, an exhibit of photography drawn from the police department archives was mounted at a small gallery. The purpose of the show was to present the crime photographer as a craftsman, but also to show his or her visual acumen and sensitivities. The show drew a lot of attention to the archives in general and to their potential for telling a number of local histories—the police force, crime in L.A., architectural history. Hopefully the attention will generate money for preserving the collection. As you say, Jim, we need to keep our eye on both camps. There's still a need for the basic care and storage and cataloguing of many yet-to-be-revealed collections.
Jeffrey Levin: Up until now, characterization of photographic material has been done primarily with optical microscopy techniques. Part of the scientific research that we're doing at the GCI takes a more analytical approach. Could we talk a bit about the way characterization has typically been done and about how that is different from the analytical approach?
James Reilly: The things that are the most commonly used are a low-power loupe or a stereo microscope. You look for the color, layer structure, and other things that you can see, primarily to identify processes and to determine what kind of deterioration is going on. It's relatively simple, straightforward, and nondestructive—but highly subjective and not very quantifiable. So it certainly would be better if there were analytical instruments that told us something meaningful and quantitative. The problem is not to apply the device but to interpret what it is telling you. Today we have all sorts of ways to characterize materials. But our difficulty is fitting that into a scheme that ultimately relates back to the work of the conservator, the curator, the registrar, the dealer, or the collector.
Dusan Stulik: With the analytical tools available today, like X-ray fluorescence, Fourier transform infrared spectrometry, and GC mass spectrometry for organic material, we can identify not only major techniques but also variant processes and get some information about chemical treatment during the processing or chemical postprocessing, like toning. But I completely agree with Jim that there is no way to avoid the problem of interpretation. You can get all this data, but figuring out what it means in the context of a photograph is really a challenge.
Jeffrey Levin: How great is the danger that knowledge about chemical photography and past experimentation is going to be lost as we move toward digitizing images or capturing images in a digital format?
Bertrand Lavédrine: We will lose some knowledge, but it's a natural attrition. In the story of photography, each evolution of the technology rendered the previous processes obsolete, contributing to the disappearance of crucial knowledge. For instance, at the end of the 19th century, we stopped manufacturing albumen paper and collodion plates. This is normal evolution. I don't see any difference with the evolution toward digital imaging. Some knowledge will disappear. On the other hand, many artists and photographers are rediscovering the 19th-century photographic processes.
Dusan Stulik: My take on this is that chemical photography today is something like illuminated manuscripts. Illuminated manuscripts basically existed for several hundred years and were eliminated by Guttenberg. How wonderful it would be if the people who created illuminated manuscripts made some provision to ensure that the knowledge regarding the methods they used was preserved. We didn't get that information. But we have the potential to preserve that knowledge about chemical photography—now, at the end of its use.
Bertrand Lavédrine: But we don't know if the information we're preserving is the information they will need in the future. Furthermore, there are many recipes for medieval illumination of writings, but often we do not fully understand them. The vocabulary has changed, and the product source is different. For instance, the products used for iron gall inks have nothing to do with iron sulfate and gallic acid found today. Yes, it is necessary to keep information we think they'll need, but it seems unrealistic that we'll be able to transmit all the knowledge and know-how.
Dusan Stulik: But that is exactly what I'm talking about. It would be really wonderful if somebody in the 15th century had accumulated all the knowledge and translated it to us.
Bertrand Lavédrine: I agree with what you're saying, but I am not sure that we can preserve all the crucial knowledge we're talking about. First, no one has a comprehensive knowledge of a photograph—the emulsion manufacturer knows one part, the paper manufacturer another, the photographer knows about its processing; it is difficult to gather all this data together. Second, we always lose some information with time.
Teresa Mesquit: Unfortunately, many vital records kept by photographers or studios or companies have perished for one reason or other. They've been destroyed by fire or gone moldy in a basement. There's always loss of information. Also, there hasn't always been an appreciation of commercial products and the need to preserve them. It's surprising, for example, how few product catalogues of photographic paper have survived. To my knowledge, there really isn't a repository that has systematically collected these products of the technical history of photography.
Marc Harnly: I agree with Bertrand that it is inevitable that we're going to lose some crucial information, and that's part of the natural evolution. But I also agree with Dusan in advocating that we try to archive as much current information as possible. Conservators, curators, and scientists continually study the old treatises and writings of photographers. Granted, it's open to interpretation, but I still believe it can be useful.
James Reilly: Clearly, chemical-based photography is passing. Already, black-and-white photography is an old process. Fewer and fewer people have had the experience, which used to be common, of taking a picture, developing the film, and making a print in the darkroom. If they'd made a black-and-white print, when they went to an exhibition of photographs, that kind of training of the eye led to an appreciation of what they saw. As Bertrand says, this will pass inevitably. You can't hold back evolution. But it's unfortunate. Conservators and modern photographic artists use hands-on experience with these old processes to inform their work, and everybody finds it incredibly helpful. Yes, it's a laudable thing to try to capture crucial knowledge. But the appreciation and the understanding will be lost when the chemical-based imaging passes into history. There is definitely a price to be paid when it all goes to digital—and the biggest price, I think, is the loss of appreciation.
Marc Harnly: I believe there will always be artists who will go back to the old processes, mainly because there are nuances possible with traditional methods of photography that are never going to be possible with digital. Conversely, there are and will be things possible with digital imaging that are not at all possible using traditional methods. That is going to attract the experimenters that photography has always attracted.
Jeffrey Levin: Don't digital photography and the preservation of images in digital form pose a whole new series of preservation challenges?
Bertrand Lavédrine: There is ambiguity in putting the word photography near the term digital. Some people talk about digital photography, and they show you a print—that is, an ink-jet print or a conventional photographic print made from a digital file. If digital photography refers to that print, the conservation problem is not a different one from conserving traditional photography. If conservation of digital photography means conserving a digital file, this is the major problem of migration of data. The big challenge that hasn't received much attention is moving from a physical object to a number sequence. In this case, digital photography is like music. It's a score you have to play—and you need an instrument. This is really different from 19th- or 20th-century photography. If we now refer to the digital photograph as a digital file, the notion of "original" has no meaning. Each copy is an original. That makes a big difference for a fine art collection.
James Reilly: I agree that you need to distinguish between the digital file and the physical object created from the digital file. Both have preservation problems. Big ones. You have to move the digital file forward from one hardware and one software platform to another, and the only strategy that seems to work is the creation of digital repositories. It has to be done centrally in some functional depository. So far, they're not very cost effective and are complicated by the need for human intervention. We're not benefiting as much from lowering the costs of mass storage as we thought. On the other hand, all the hard copy output—the ink-jet prints and so on that are made from the files—that's a totally different problem. In the long run, we'll probably have better luck making stable, digital hard copy prints than in solving the problem of preserving the digital file. We're creating digital files so much faster than we're creating any enduring way to preserve them.
Bertrand Lavédrine: Do you think that a fine art museum will be ready to acquire a digital photograph just by buying a file and not a print? Or is there really now the question in fine art photography of whether to buy a photograph and not a file as well.
James Reilly: I suppose that in the fine art realm, there will be acquisitions of digital files, but it will be quite some time before the digital file becomes a central focus of preservation in the fine art context. It will come, but not soon. I find it difficult to imagine the pure digital file being seen as the work and the key thing to apply art preservation to.
Jeffrey Levin: So, Teresa—have you had to conserve any digital files lately?
Teresa Mesquit: No, I haven't. I doubt if traditional photographic conservators will be involved in preserving digital files. That would more likely fall into the hands of preservation officers or librarians or specialists who have to deal with migrating the files elsewhere. The rest of us will probably deal with the output.
Marc Harnly: Several years ago, the American Institute for Conservation formed the Electronic Media Specialty Group, which now meets regularly, like the other groups for paintings, objects, and photographs. There are "techie" conservators who are really attracted to this area—which is great for the field. Conservators have to be somewhat knowledgeable about the preservation of digital files as well as of the objects themselves. The conservators in this group will keep the artistic issues in the preservation discussion so that they are not lost among all the technical issues.
Jeffrey Levin: In what ways can the private practitioner in photographic conservation—someone who is not working with an institution—contribute to the advancement of our understanding of photographic material?
Teresa Mesquit: For one, private conservators are among the pioneers in a field that had no formal training until the mid-1970s. Over the years, their studios have served as vital training sites for students of photographic conservation. Also, some have hosted a number of hothouse-style workshops aimed at developing new treatment techniques. These are big contributions, I think, and perhaps they are specific to the treatment emphasis that guides private conservators.
Marc Harnly: Conservators in private practice have a great deal of anecdotal knowledge about photographs and how they react to treatment. This can be used to guide research. There are many motivated private conservators who conduct their own research and produce and publish relevant and useful information.
Bertrand Lavédrine: In France, conservators are mainly in private practice. But they work for institutions. Whether conservators are private or not, they do have the contact with the object and are the interface between the scientist and the object. They always can formulate problems and questions, and some of them are also heavily involved in conservation research and analysis.
Jeffrey Levin: Is there more that can be done to share the results of research in a practical way with conservators so that the knowledge gained can be applied in a way that makes a difference?
James Reilly: Much more. It should be a two-way flow of information from the field. Private conservators formulate very good questions. There should be more ways that their questions and successes and failures can be shared with the research community and with the field, and vice versa. Research that's done that doesn't get translated into recommendations or useful background information isn't very good research at all. It's critically important that research be communicated to the field in a form that can be used. I also think we should integrate research into the educational opportunities for photographic conservators to a better extent than it is. Student conservators should become aware that the field has a research agenda that they can participate in during their training and their internship experiences.
Bertrand Lavédrine: In good research, the problem has to come from the field and not from the the scientist. And in the end, the results have to be given back to the community, which is not always the case. Dissemination is sometimes a problem.
Teresa Mesquit: There's an albumen photography Web site that, as far as I know, was put together by private conservators. Among other things, it's a forum for exchange of treatment methods that have been tested and found useful or less useful, and it has a database that can be added to. It also gives historical background on the albumen process, along with a demo. That's a huge contribution from private conservators. It's also a great template for any other aspect of photo conservation that would be addressed on the Web in the future.
Marc Harnly: I frankly believe there are good avenues for sharing knowledge. Organizations of conservators meet frequently, there are numerous publications, and the Web has proven useful in disseminating information. The Web is only going to get more useful in sharing information. I think more could be done to get information out to countries that don't have access to these organizations and publications. I do agree that researchers should always consider what venue is going to be used to present results to ensure that they're going to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Jeffrey Levin: Does more need to be done to convey scientific research and its results into the hands of the people who are actually working on the objects?
James Reilly: Yes, I think so.
Jeffrey Levin: And how can that be done?
James Reilly: You build it into the project right from the beginning by picking good problems that you can make progress on and by thinking them through as far as you can. You don't know what you're going to find when you embark on research. But you can have at least some tentative thoughts on how it might be communicated, beyond writing a technical article or giving a paper at a conference. You build it into your research. You may also conceive projects that are primarily about consolidating and communicating knowledge. The default in research is always to go for discovering something new. But it's also very interesting and exciting to put together, in a creative way, knowledge that exists and to communicate it. That's a legitimate kind of research project—a project to figure out ways to communicate to the field what's already known.