The Conservation of Photographs is a relatively new discipline in the cultural heritage preservation field with its beginnings in the late 1960’s early 1970’s.
However, it has its roots firmly grounded in the formative years of photography as practitioners and the emergent photographic industry grappled with its inherent instability.We talked about this issues with Ian and Angela, pioneers for the photographic conservation.
Francesca Marcaccio Hitzeman: Can you tell us how you become interested in photographic conservation?
Ian Moor: My love of photography and interest in photographic conservation began in the mid to late 1960’s whilst working as a maker and restorer of stringed musical instruments; lutes and classical guitars. The father of my business partner was a professional photographer of the old school and so I had the opportunity to work a lot with him processing and printing, developing (please excuse the pun) a passion for this medium. I also helped him to organise and care for his collection of negatives and prints. This led to my returning to college as a mature student where I met Angela my wife and together we studied conservation at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts University of the Arts London where because of my love of photography, I chose to undertake a research and conservation project on the wet collodion process. Photographic Conservation was unheard of in the UK and Europe at that time although, there was a growing interest in America through the advocacy and writings of Eugene Ostroff, Curator of Photography at the Smithsonian Institute, which began collecting photographs to form a collection in the 1960’s. The rest is history as Angela and I as students trawled the junk shops and street markets looking for photographs to study. Our research included reproducing many of the early photographic process and we went on to develop a specialism in photographic conservation and established The Centre for Photographic Conservation, which in addition to its conservation and consultancy services pioneered training in photographic conservation since 1981 teaching conservators and heritage professionals worldwide.
FMH: When we think about photographic preservation we think it is to preserve only the surface. Actually, we need to think about the preservation of the photograph as an object. According to you, what constitutes a photograph what are the limits of this definition? According to you what constitutes a photograph what are the limits of this definition?
IM: The word photograph (photo – graph) first coined by Sir John Herschel literally translated means light (photo) drawn (graph) that is drawn by light. Therefore, by definition a photograph -‐ drawn by light -‐ is an image produced by exposing, in-‐camera or by contact, light sensitive materials to light or to chemical oxidising agents. Therefore, by definition, any image no matter how photographic in appearance that is not produced directly by light or by light and chemical oxidizing agents, in camera or by contact with a negative or positive, is not a “true” photograph, for example a Collotype. Such a definition does of course have implications for images produced by Digital Imaging. By definition the initial digital raw file obtained by/captured by a camera or a scanner is a photograph, however, any subsequent usable image out put via an inkjet or Electrostatic printer Thermography is not a “true” photograph whereas any digital file output via a tri-‐colour laser to a photographic transparency or chromogenic reflection print, via a Photothermographic Transfer or Electrophotographic process (EP) is a “true” photograph. FMH: What are some important issues in photographic conservation?
IM: The photographic process has always been at heart a reprographic process therefore, there are many that feel that it is only the information content, the readable image, that is important and that this information can be simply copied and perpetuated. The digital revolution has done much to fuel and support this view as the application of digital imaging in the heritage field has revolutionised image access, opened up collections to a wider audience, local or remote, and is helping to preserve original material by limiting/preventing access to the original image. The downside is that it has supported the view that we no longer need to keep the original or invest in its preservation and conservation. A digital surrogate is not a replacement/substitute for the original image source; it can not possess all its material and process characteristics, it exists only as a copy. Original information sources must be preserved.
FMH: What are some of the less obvious aspects you concentrate on?
IM_Photographic conservators are not just the preservers of our photographic heritage their knowledge and expertise is increasingly adding to our understanding and knowledge of the evolution and history of the photographic process and its practitioners. Conservators are in a unique position to research, investigate, discover and interpret historical, material evidence as they are constantly working/dealing with original material sources. The development of process and materials based photographic conservation techniques must be based upon a clear understanding of the inherent material and chemical nature of historic photographic processes and their use and manipulation by their many practitioners.
FMH: For the last 150 years silver-halide technology, a form of chemical imaging, has commercially dominated the popular manifestation of photography. The vast photographic legacy, which now exists, was predominantly created by chemical imaging systems. Much of the past task of knowing a photograph for the conservator has been in understanding the chemical origins, and transitions of the image object we know as photograph. What do you think are the main challenges for a photographic conservator today?
IM: Given the digital revolution and the demise of traditional analogue photography What are the main challenges for a photographic conservator today? It was Fox Talbot’s intent to make everyman his own printer; it’s what drove him on from the photogenic drawing and in‐camera photogenic drawing to the calotype, to the photoglyphic engraving process to the photo-gravure process. Talbot would have loved and embraced digital photography, unfortunately digital files and much of what constitutes today’s digital output is inherently unstable; less stable than its analogue counterpart. Add to this the huge volumes of highly unstable analogue material; nitrate and acetate film negatives and chromogenic colour, then the challenge to preserve our photographic heritage is very real. The sheer volume of twentieth century analogue and digital material is already presenting and will continue to present huge challenges for the cultural heritage and conservation fields.
FMH: What advice do you have for young conservators who want to focus on photography?
IM: As photographic conservation is a conservation field discipline as opposed to a purely photographic discipline training in mixed materials conservation and conservation science is essential along with a working knowledge of photography, photographic chemistry and the history and development of the photographic process both as a medium and as an art form. Unfortunately there is no full time programme in Photographic Conservation anywhere in the world but there are excellent mixed materials Conservation Programmes that enable students to specialise in photographic conservation in their final year. We would recommend Winterthur University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, IFROA in Paris or The Royal Danish School for Conservation in Copenhagen. For practicing conservators in paper, prints and drawings and archive conservation it is sometimes possible to get an internship as a volunteer such as in George Eastman House Rochester. Internships are not generally offered to those without conservation experience. To address this lamentable situation The Centre has been running CPD courses and workshops in Photographic Conservation since 1981, however these are only available to trained conservators seeking to develop skills and experience in photographic conservation. There are also professional bodies and their groups that conservators can join such as the Photographic Materials Group of Icon (The Institute of Conservation (UK)) and AIC (American Institute of Conservation). Both bodies hold meetings and conferences in this specialism/area. We would also recommend that they read widely on the subject with a focus on photographic history and conservation related papers and publications. Publications written from a purely photographic industry perspective and bias are useful for process chemistry, production and history related information but not for interventive conservation treatments. Sadly the development of and experience in skills based interventive treatments for photographs can only be undertaken at the bench, even those schools that offer specialism in photographic conservation in the last year offer little opportunity to develop hands on skills. The move away from interventive conservation to preventive conservation is also presenting little opportunity for conservators to develop knowledge and expertise in this important area.
Francesca Marcaccio Hitzeman
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