Examination, Technical Analysis, and Treatment of His Works in the Charles Bregler Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
MARK F. BOCKRATH, VIRGINIA N. NAUDÉ, & DEBBIE HESS NORRIS
4 THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THOMAS EAKINS
DEBBIE HESS NORRIS
The Bregler Collection includes 500 photographic prints attributed to Thomas Eakins and his circle. This is one of the largest holdings of Eakins's photography in the world. Specific attributions of individual images has proved difficult, however, and is currently an ongoing effort. It is likely, for example, that many of these photographs were taken by Thomas Eakins but printed by his wife Susan.
Thomas Eakins utilized and depended upon photography to sharpen his vision. He admired photography's “uncompromising honesty” and often made photographs as studies for his works. In 1883, for example, Eakins took photographs of a group of male students at a swimming hole on the Brandywine River. These photographs serve as a study in pose and gesture, anatomy and posture. The structural composition of these photographs, which were printed in both albumen and platinum, is remarkably close to that of his painting The Swimming Hole (1884-85, Fort Worth Museum of Art).
Eakins's works focused principally on value, not color. The monochromatic nature of photography, therefore, allowed him to instantly record and analyze distinct values, structural forms, and gradations of tone. In many cases Eakins's figural studies, like his painted portraits, stand by themselves as penetrating studies of personality and anatomy.
For Eakins, still photography was an invaluable aid to the study of the figure. In fact, he was convinced that a comprehensive understanding of anatomy was essential for all successful artists, and therefore, using his students as models, he compiled a photographic atlas of comparative body types. In his Naked Series, models are depicted in seven fixed poses. For each model, there are seven separate albumen prints that have been mounted overall (with a water-soluble adhesive and, in many cases, in a fixed, symmetrical configuration) onto secondary supports measuring 3 1/16 × 10 in or 4 × 10 in. Eakins also posed students in classical costumes, as he did not want them to study Greek statuary (an accepted practice at the French academies) but preferred that their work be modeled from life. These Arcadian photographs permitted Eakins to reconcile his innate desire to portray nature accurately with his love and appreciation for Greek art.
4.1 EAKINS'S TECHNIQUE
The vast majority of Eakins's photographs date from the period 1880 to 1900. He utilized a 4 × 5 in American Optical Camera (designed for portrait work) and a multitude of photographic printing processes, although the vast majority of his work is in albumen or platinum. Other processes include cyanotype, silver gelatin printing-out and developing-out papers, and collodion chloride process.
This albumen process, consistently praised for its innate ability to render detail, dominated the 19th-century photographic market, and, therefore, it is not at all surprising that Eakins used this readily available printing material so frequently. The albumen photograph consists of an egg white or albumen binder coated onto a 100% rag, lightweight paper support. The final image material (the material that absorbs and scatters light) is photolytic or printed-out silver. The albumen photographs in the Bregler Collection exhibit many of the typical deterioration characteristics associated with this process, including fading of the photolytic silver image, yellowing, cracking and/or crazing of the egg white binder layer, and structural deterioration to both primary and secondary supports.
In the platinum process, the final image material (platinum metal) is embedded directly in the paper support, creating (in comparison to the albumen process) a softer, matte-surfaced effect. The platinum process, popular primarily with fine art photographers at the turn of the century, is characterized by prints that exhibit a short tonal range and low contrast. Platinum papers were often hand-coated by the photographer. Close examination of the Eakins materials indicates that he (or his assistants) applied these light-sensitive salts to a variety of paper supports by both brush application and flotation methods. Many of the platinum prints in this collection exhibit an embrittled and yellowed primary support, resulting from a number of factors that are intrinsic to the photographic process including the presence of residual iron salts and acids utilized in their manufacture. Because platinum is an extremely noble metal, these images do not exhibit image fading.
4.2 CONSERVATION TREATMENT
A long-term preservation plan was developed for the Eakins photographic print materials in the Bregler Collection. This plan reflects the collection's general condition and its projected use and therefore includes the recommendation for stabilization treatments such as consolidation of flaking binder layers and repair of severe structural damages to primary and secondary supports, collective rehousing in polyester sleeves and/or ragboard mats to allow access to scholars, establishment of rigid exhibition and handling guidelines, and storage in a controlled low relative humidity (30%-40%) environment.
As described in this plan, the conservation treatment of these photographs concentrated on their stabilization and long-term preservation. Cosmetic treatments, for the most part, were not employed, although they may be required in the future as specific images are selected for exhibition and/or publication.
The most significant treatment problems posed by the Eakins photographic materials included the reduction of embedded dirt and grime from aged albumen binder layers as well as the reduction of cross-linked pressure-sensitive tapes and the removal of embrittled secondary supports.
A wide variety of materials and techniques have been utilized successfully for the reduction of embedded dirt and grime from photographic surfaces. Surface cleaning of aged albumen binder layers, however, is often problematic, as these egg white binders are characteristically cracked and crazed. Dirt and grime may quickly and irreversibly become embedded within these deteriorated binder layers if moisture is utilized. Furthermore, crumbled vinyl erasers may further disrupt a photograph's fragile surface. Finally, the use of human saliva, which many conservators have describe to be more “controllable,” may not be recommended for albumen photographs because it contains a small amount of lysozyme among a significant number of other constituents. Lysozyme acts as a bactericide, which lyses or attacks strains of bacteria—a possible concern is that it may attack the glycoprotein found in egg white.
During this project, all Eakins's albumen photographs were evaluated under 30x magnification to ascertain if surface cleaning could be safely accomplished. For cleaning, a Mars Staedtler eraser and/or distilled water applied with cotton swabs were utilized. Mars Staedtler erasers were selected because they are free of sulfur, and it has been postulated that sulfur-containing eraser residue inadvertently left behind in a paper's support will interact adversely with silver photographic images.
Many of the photographs in the Bregler Collection had been overall mounted or tipped onto extremely embrittled and deteriorated secondary supports with both water-soluble and pressure-sensitive adhesives. Most of this work was performed by Charles Bregler. Owing to the deteriorated and vulnerable nature of the mounts, it was determined that, in many instances, mount removal would be required to ensure the collection's long-term preservation. Removal from poor-quality secondary supports required extensive photographic documentation, followed by the use of moisture or moisture vapor, often applied through a Gore-Tex membrane. For discolored pressure-sensitive tapes, solvent gels, prepared with the appropriate solvents, were utilized.