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Image: William Henry Fox Talbot, photogenic drawing, 1839. Harry Brisbane Dick Fund, 1936.
Image: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, platinum print, 1918. Gift of Georgia O’Keeffe through the generosity of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and Jennifer and Joseph Duke, 1997.
Image: Paul Strand, Wire Wheel, silver-platinum print, 1917. Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive.
Image: John Fitzgibbon, Kno-Shr, Kansas Chief, daguerreotype, 1853. Gilman Collection, Purchase, 2005.

“Unlike other conservation specialties, the field of photograph conservation remains as complex and heterogeneous as the medium of photography itself.” (Grant Romer)

On October 28th, 2014 Hanna Hölling’s “Cultures of Conservation” class made our final field trip of the fall term to the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (laboratory for conservation of photography). Our host for the afternoon, Nora Kennedy, began the session by pushing four large stacks of photographs in our direction. Among the piles were sepia-toned salted paper prints, small daguerreotypes enclosed in pocket-sized compartments, polaroids from the eighties, family photos of grinning children from another decade, and formal studio portraits depicting stern expressions. Our task was to organize the one hundred or so images into a rough chronological timeline, spanning over a century of the photographic process.

This exercise overflowed into a larger discussion about the distinguishing characteristics of historic photographs and conservation strategies more broadly (although Nora explained that most of their work revolves around prevention and some degree of physical restoration, rather than conservation in a strict sense). Along these lines, we discussed what happens to the photographs that aren’t in good condition and cannot be displayed, since they might not be representative of a photographer’s work. In these cases, she explained that they are still kept in museum collections for their historical value. As a result, collecting detailed information at the time of acquisition of a work has become much more important in the field of conservation today, as well as other methods of documentation, such as artist interviews, in order to preserve the knowledge that travels with a photographic image. The issue of material authenticity also surfaced in our discussions, particularly how this concept might shift when we consider exhibition/display prints.

Image: Photographs (from the personal collection of Nora Kennedy) arranged by students in chronological order.

In a 2014 paper from the ICOM-CC conference in Melbourne, Kennedy discussed some of the most pressing issues in the field of photo conservation today. Although there has been tremendous progress made in recent decades to establish this field as a separate area of specialization, the needs going forward include: better methods in process identification, deterioration characterization and study, innovative approaches to conservation treatment, efficiencies in duplication and copying, and the development of more photograph preservation education & training programs. Additionally, the increased interest in technical art history has furthered a technical and historical understanding of both analog and digital materials, but digital technologies have also initiated a profound change in materials, as well as the methods to document them. In spite of great educational advances and improved collaboration within the field, the meaning of photograph conservation (and the role of the “photo conservator”) has yet to be fully defined, making advocacy a challenge.

Image: Nora Kennedy, Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs.

To personalize this account, I would say that photography has always been a powerful medium for me, both as a tool for constructing narratives and as a point of sensory convergence. I am interested in the moment of a photograph’s creation, and later, by the ability of the photographic object to act as a means of cultural performance, social communication, and enactment of memory. While photography is a visual medium of image production and reproduction, photographs are also objects with their own discrete material properties and evidentiary potential. Treating photography as material culture allows for a synthesis of what have been largely separate discourses, the aesthetic/art historical and the technical/scientific, allowing for the simultaneous interrogation of the content of the photograph and its physical existence.

Image: Katie Sanderson, Assistant Conservator of Photographs. Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, Metropolitan Museum of Art (laboratory for conservation of photography).

This is relevant in thinking about the materiality of photographs and the issues that photo/paper conservators must navigate every day. In considering how photographs find their way into museum collections and archives, it’s interesting to think about the liminal space that lies between an original negative or print and its later manifestations. What changes and what is cropped or altered, either by the artist or later actors, along the course of a photograph’s life? This process is often the result of someone else’s agency, such as the printer, publisher, or curator. Thinking about photography in this way (and focusing on the non-canonical aspects of the medium) provides room to explore what lies between disciplinary territories, and to consider the complex relationship between photography, material culture, and conservation.