JAIC 1989, Volume 28, Number 1, Article 5 (pp. 57 to 59)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1989, Volume 28, Number 1, Article 5 (pp. 57 to 59)


Valerie Baas

James M.Reilly. Care and Identification of 19th Century Photographic Prints. Rochester: Eastman Kodak Company (1986). 116 pp.SiegfriedRempel. The Care of Photographs. New York: Nick Lyons Books (1987). 184 pp.

AS THE COLLECTING OF PHOTOGRAPHS INCREASES in stature within the world of art collecting, published information on specialized care and conservation is becoming more available. Two of the more recent books are compared here, as Reilly and Rempel begin with similar intentions.

Both publications are aimed at curators, collectors, and archivists, and provide basic information such as identification of processes, deterioration, handling, environment and storage, and conservation concerns. Both authors have included materials from their respective earlier publications, and although at some points the books' contents are similar, their emphases are quite different.

Reilly, working in collaboration with Constance McCabe, has produced a visually appealing book covering 19th-century photographic print material. He has concentrated on the processes a curator would be most likely to encounter, these being the salted paper, albumen, major non-silver techniques, collodion and gelatin. Two-thirds of the book is devoted to the development, fabrication and deterioration of these early photographs as an aid to their identification. It is an exceptional book in this regard, dense with information, and filled with beautifully reproduced images of 19th-century photographic materials.

Advocating identification by visual inspection, Reilly recommends using magnification and accurately labeled specimen photographs for comparison. Included in the text and summarized in a very helpful pull-out identification flowchart are excellent photomacrographs of examples of each process. Photomechanical reproduction processes and cased photographs are also illustrated.

Under preservation and collections management, Reilly gives guidelines for exhibition and loan policies, as well as a thoughtful discussion of the marking of prints for security. A detailed description of relative humidity substantiates his assertion that control of this condition is the most important factor for the preservation of historic photographs. Other environmental factors are also discussed with specific causes and effects mentioned for the deterioration of each type of object. In the section on storage and display, he again relates specifications to classes of photographs, as in standards for exposure to light. Handling, matting and framing are discussed in general terms, including pointers specific to photographs.

The final section on conservation stresses curatorial care defined as the knowledge of processes and materials in order to establish responsible storage and display policies. Any applied treatment other than dusting or housing of objects is referred to conservation professionals.

What Reilly has produced here is essentially a textbook on 19th-century photographic print materials. The book is conscientiously footnoted with complete references and supplied with a bibliography divided by chapter for additional research on the part of the interested reader. While the exhaustive and detailed process descriptions may be confusing for the novice, and a certain amount of repetition occurs within the different sections of the book, it is an excellent reference work, to be carefully studied. Coupled with the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher, and the access to actual specimens of the photographic process, this book would be invaluable to anyone interested in learning about these materials. Indeed, its greatest drawback seems to be that it is not available in hardcover.

Siegfried Rempel is more ambitious in his aim, including negative materials and contemporary photographs in addition to 19th-century prints. He begins with a very brief description of the various processes and their history, unfortunately without illustrations. The section on examination and handling offers useful housekeeping and damage control tips. Examination is described using visual methods including magnification and ultraviolet light sources. The possibility of media determination using an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and infrared spectroscopy is mentioned. A discussion of deterioration which follows relates environmental and other factors to problems occurring in the different photographic media.

A chapter on cleaning and stabilizing photographs seems problematic in that it recommends techniques of solvent spot testing and cleaning that require accurate identification of processes, while the means for identification have not been thoroughly addressed within this book. Cleaning of artifacts with Kodak Film Cleaner or trichloroethylene is recommended for a wide range of situations without adequate information on toxicity. Both of these liquids are quite dangerous, and require the use of a fume hood or respirator or both. (Trichloroethylene has been banned from use by the garment dry cleaning industry as too great a health hazard.) These and other hands-on procedures such as the disassembly of cased photographs would inevitably prove harmful to some objects unless performed by a skilled technician trained or supervised by a conservator. Most conservators would probably agree with James Reilly when he says, “Inexperienced people usually underestimate the difficulties of both major and minor remedial treatment and attempt procedures which are either inherently unsafe or beyond their ability,” (p.107).

In Chapter Five, Rempel gives a general overview of environmental concerns, and includes recommendations of devices for monitoring. Specifications for relative humidity and light levels are not varied according to photographic process, but are consistent with standard museum levels. The following section on housing of photographs begins with a somewhat fuzzy discussion of the quality of materials such as paper and plastics used in storage and display. The issue of matting and mounting is illustrated with reference to the Library of Congress publication by Merrily Smith and Margaret Brown, and follows guidelines generally accepted for works of art on paper. The inlay method of mounting paper artifacts is advocated for unmounted albumen photographs, but possible drawbacks inherent in this system are not discussed.

The description of housing negatives using boxes, sleeves, envelopes, and other enclosures appears to be the most useful part of the book. The review of box types would be helpful to anyone with a purchasing dilemma, and a section on sample situations called “housing models” would be comforting to anyone faced with a pile of photographic materials. In terms of both environment and immediate housing, storage issues are more thoroughly dealt with than those involving display or exhibition travel, giving this volume an archival rather than fine arts flavor.

The final chapter on conservation services briefly discusses typical procedures and treatments likely to be encountered, and includes a personal philosophical statement regarding Codes of Ethics. At the end of the book is a list of conservation services and suppliers followed by a bibliography in which key articles are marked by asterisks.

Considered as a whole, this book provides useful information in a way which makes it difficult to take in. Much of the material is repetitious, and the writing style requires wading through errors in sentence structure and word usage. More problematic that these, however, are the technical inaccuracies.

The mechanisms by which photographs deteriorate are still incompletely understood, and existing theories are frequently revised. Asking authors to set forth the most current theories for a lay audience would perhaps be unreasonable; however, those that are presented should be correct. Even the non-scientist is aware that a fermentation process would reduce the amount of sugar present, not increase it, (p. 62). Less obvious technical errors include the implication that albumen is not hygroscopic or subject to biological attack, (p.62), and the substitution of “Polacolor” for “ArchivalColor”, (p.73).

Given the scarcity of published information on the care of photographs, any addition to the literature can be considered a contribution. What is especially needed now are works dealing in depth with contemporary materials.

ValerieBaas, Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48202

Copyright 1989 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works