JAIC 1995, Volume 34, Number 1, Article 1 (pp. 1 to 10)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1995, Volume 34, Number 1, Article 1 (pp. 1 to 10)




As O'Keeffe sorted through the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz in the late 1940s, she selected the best mounted print of each image for what she called the “key set” of his work, later given to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Given the historic importance and value of these photographs, and the many unanswered questions surrounding Steichen's treatment of them, the National Gallery organized and hosted a colloquy on the subject in May 1993. Steichen-treated palladium prints were brought from the Getty Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, and matching untreated prints were brought from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These photographs and their counterparts in the key set were analyzed with x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy by Lisha Glinsman at the National Gallery to ensure positive identification of the predominant metallic elements present in each print (Glinsman and McCabe 1995). The prints were then visually examined, compared, and discussed by the assembled curators, conservators, and historians, and the following observations were made:

  • The untreated prints tend to be darker and deeper in tone, sometimes more yellow, occasionally almost orange. The treated prints have lighter tonalities.
  • The treated prints tend to have rougher, more raw surfaces, while the untreated prints from Boston and New York are smoother and less disturbed. It appears that Steichen's treatment attacked the cellulose to some degree, disturbing the print's surface and weakening the paper support in some cases. This effect can be explained if a bleach was used to reduce yellowing, since bleach is known to degrade cellulose more than simple aqueous immersion (McCabe 1993).
  • Many of the treated prints, and nearly all of the untreated prints, have surface coatings, probably a wax or varnish. Bry recalls that O'Keeffe and Steichen chose not to recoat prints after treatment (Bry 1993–94), but Steichen may have done so anyway (perhaps without informing Bry or O'Keeffe), when he found a print's surface to have been altered noticeably by the treatment. It is also possible that the treatment did not remove surface coatings. But without identification of the coating material (this could be done only with destructive sampling techniques), or more certainty as to the treatment chemistry, these coating issues cannot be resolved.
  • Retouching is more prevalent and noticeable, and somewhat less skillfully done, on many of the treated photographs. It may be an indication of posttreatment retouching by Steichen, as opposed to retouching done at the time of fabrication by Stieglitz or by O'Keeffe.

To illustrate the effects of some known treatments for discoloration of platinum and palladium photographs, a series of experimental samples were presented at the colloquy by Constance McCabe, consulting photograph conservator at the National Gallery of Art (McCabe 1993). Sample prints had been fabricated and aged, several different treatment protocols applied, and the treated prints re-aged. Results indicated that the commonly recommended technique of reclearing discolored prints in hydrochloric acid had little effect, but a calcium hypochlorite bleach reduced discoloration noticeably.

McCabe's study illuminates the possibilities for Steichen's treatment and invites some tentative explanations for the observations that were made about the original photographs.

It may be that when examining the prints for distribution of the collection in the late 1940s, Georgia O'Keeffe, an accomplished painter and colorist, determined that many of them seemed darker and yellower than when first made. This finding induced her to contact Steichen, who treated the prints chemically, perhaps with a calcium hypochlorite bleach or equivalent. Original surface coatings and retouching may have been removed by the treatment and in some cases reapplied by Steichen.

If this scenario of events 40 years ago is accepted as likely, then current custodians of these prints should be well aware of their unique history. They may have a heightened susceptibility to physical deterioration, such as surface cracking or weakening of the paper support, and the utmost care should be exercised in handling, housing, and exhibiting them.

Copyright 1995 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works