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Indepth Arts News:

"Photography: Processes, Preservation, and Conservation"
2001-01-30 until 2001-05-06
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY, USA

An exploration of the technical history of photographic processes and of related conservation, preservation, and connoisseurship issues will be presented in an exhibition opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on January 30, 2001. Photography: Processes, Preservation, and Conservation, on view through May 6 in the Museum's Howard Gilman Gallery, will include approximately 35 works by some of the most revered names in photography, ranging from the superbly preserved to the unfortunately time-worn, with before-and-after treatment documentation, microscopic views, and examples of current methods for examination, analysis, preservation, and treatment. The exhibition celebrates the January 2001 opening of the Museum's new, state-of-the-art Sherman Fairchild Center for Works on Paper and Photograph Conservation.

The exhibition is made possible by the Henry Nias Foundation, Inc. Philippe de Montebello, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, explained, From its inception, photography has always had a somewhat split personality – part art, part science. While the Museum aims to collect and exhibit the high points of photographic art, we can better appreciate the aesthetics of those works, and our conservators can better safeguard them for future generations if we also understand the technical history of the medium. By revealing this often hidden side of photography, we hope to allow our public to gain a fuller appreciation for the photographs displayed on our walls.

Photography: Processes, Preservation, and Conservation will be arranged chronologically, beginning with the first publicly displayed photographic process – the daguerreotype – and will conclude with five different processes employed in color photography – chromogenic printing, silver dye bleach printing, dye transfer printing, carbro printing, and ink jet printing. Works by William Henry Fox Talbot, Carleton Watkins, Thomas Eakins, Edward Steichen, and Berenice Abbott, among others, will be on view.

Only in the past three decades has photograph conservation arrived at current levels of expertise and ethical standards as an outgrowth of photographic science and other areas of conservation specialization, said Nora Kennedy, Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs at the Museum. The roots of photographic conservation, however, can be found in the experiments of the early photographers themselves, as they tried to enhance and revivify their works.

The extraordinary precision of daguerreotypes – one-of-a-kind images on silver-plated copper sheets – will be demonstrated in a view of Paris made in 1849 by Choiselat and Ratel, in which even the buttons on the uniform of a distant soldier are visible through a microscope. Preservation of daguerreotypes in period and modern housings will be shown, and the risks of chemical cleaning will be pointed out on a Southworth and Hawes portrait that a well-intentioned owner tried to clean in 1934.

A two-part panorama of the first photographic printing firm, Reading Establishment (Talbot and Henneman, 1846), details the steps involved in the paper print process, which was invented by Talbot and which gradually supplanted daguerreotypes in the 1850s. In its early days, photography was handcrafted, and each photographer's work had a particular texture, tone, and color, the result of individual chemical recipes and procedures.

Five splendid salted paper prints from the 1840s and 1850s by Louis Robert, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Gustave Le Gray, Frank Chauvassaigne, and Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard will demonstrate this.

Two 1860s albumen silver prints by Carleton Watkins reveal how conditions of storage and display affect photographs. One print, originally from an album kept in a library and rarely viewed, is clear, intense, and luminous; the other print, which was framed and long exhibited before joining the Metropolitan's collection, is discolored and stained from light and the poor materials of its mount and wood frame.

Highlighting the critical role of the conservator, a platinum print of a male nude by Thomas Eakins, ca. 1890, will be displayed alongside detail photographs of the print prior to treatment. An explanation of how the conservator restored the photograph to structural stability and aesthetic integrity will describe aspects of deterioration and conservation in vivid detail. The state-of-the-art analytical tools of the conservator will also be explored through a turn-of-the-century photograph by Edward Steichen, an artist who experimented with a variety of painterly photographic techniques that rendered the works difficult to analyze. The precise elemental makeup of such pictures can now be discovered through non-destructive x-ray fluorescence, which enables the conservator to track an artist's technical development and to make more appropriate recommendations for treatment, storage, and exhibition.

Technical methods to help determine authenticity, a major concern of collectors, curators, and other connoisseurs, will also be displayed. Analysis of microscopic fibers from photographic paper can help to date a work, as can the presence of optical brighteners that were added to many photographic papers after World War II and are visible under ultra-violet light. The issue of vintage prints (prints made close to the time of the original negative) will be presented through two dramatically different black-and-white prints of Berenice Abbott's 1925 portrait of writer Djuna Barnes, one made in the 1920s, the other in the 1980s.

Artificially aged samples of five color processes – chromogenic print (the most common), silver dye bleach print, dye transfer print, carbro print, and ink jet print – will illustrate the degree to which each of these processes is susceptible to deterioration, underscoring the fact that museums must take special steps to preserve even the most contemporary photographs.

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