By Timothy P. Whalen
The conservation profession does not get to choose what new and unwieldy media might be its next challenge. new and unwieldy media might be its next challenge. From earthquake-damaged earthen buildings in South America to twentieth-century plastic objects in museums, there is no dearth of unsolved problems that find their way to conservators’ desks and labs. However, this profession always rises to the occasion to find solutions based on science and integrity. The conservation of photographs was met head-on by the profession in just this way. In the last thirty years, photograph conservation has advanced tremendously because of committed professionals, the strategic support of enlightened foundations, and the education of a new generation of conservators specialized in photography. This integrated approach reflects a profession at its best.
As this edition of Conservation Perspectives makes clear, the nature of photography and its conservation is changing. Rapid and transformative innovations in photography and media in general are both exciting and challenging—indeed, particularly challenging for those of us in conservation. Even as chemical photography fades as a popular medium, the conservation field seeks to enhance knowledge of this form of photography in order to preserve the century and a half of images it produced. Simultaneously, we need to move ahead in acquiring the conservation knowledge sufficient to preserve digital images—images already exceeding in number those produced by chemical photography. Furthermore, we have to find effective ways to share this knowledge with those charged with preserving this heritage.
In support of this last need, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has provided significant resources for international training programs in photograph conservation, several of which are described in this newsletter’s feature article. The article, jointly authored by five prominent photograph conservators working worldwide, offers a glimpse of partnerships that seek to spread knowledge of photograph conservation from the libraries and archives of historically black colleges and universities in the United States to a Buddhist photography archive in Luang Prabang, the historic royal city of Laos. Another article in this edition explores in more detail one of those partnerships—a GCI collaboration with institutions in the United States and the Middle East. The Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative is working to enhance skills of photograph conservators in the Arab world, as well as to strengthen the network of professionals in that region, using training approaches the GCI developed for a similar program in southern, central, and eastern Europe.
Two other articles focus on GCI scientific work involving collaborations of a different sort. The first offers examples of GCI engagement with the alternative photographic processes community (photographers who have revived historical photographic methods), a collaboration aiding our effort to build an important depository at the GCI of scientifically studied samples of chemical photography. The second article describes Institute research with the National Media Museum (NMeM) in England, analyzing a variety of photographs in the NMeM’s collection—work that has enhanced the museum's understanding of items in its collection and added to our body of knowledge of nineteenth-century photography. This edition concludes with a spirited discussion by a senior research curator of photography at the University of Texas, a Southern California fine-art photographer, and the founder and director of the Image Permanence Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Together they explore the ramifications of the tectonic technological shift in image making affecting both the creating and the preserving of images.
No single institution can tackle these issues on its own. What we hope this Conservation Perspectives illustrates is what can be accomplished when the field engages in collaborative relationships that pursue shared conservation goals.