“A TRANSPARENT ATMOSPHERE”: THE PAPER NEGATIVES OF FRÉDÉRIC FLACHÉRON IN THE HARRISON D. HORBLIT COLLECTION
LEE ANN DAFFNER
It seems the conservator's mission to balance an equal concern for both the past and the future, and the Flachéron negatives at the Houghton Library, set a magnificent challenge. First and foremost, their stability and longevity had to be ensured through new procedures of housing and handling, or future research and manipulation would eventually destroy them. Yet the specifics of these procedures were entirely dependent on the individual coating of each negative. An understanding of Flachéron's method was critical.
The historical record of 19th-century photography is relatively thorough; scientific journals and eventually photographic publications provided instruction as to prevailing methods and give an inkling of the types of coatings Flachéron may have used. But in the early 1850s, neither techniques nor materials were standardized in the way they became a half-century later. This situation made examination of each negative imperative in this study.
A great deal could be surmised about Flachéron's coatings from observation, since they exhibit different physical characteristics, but verification required analysis. Exploration of a nondestructive application of FTIR suggested the presence of beeswax and sandarac resin on a group of the Flachéron paper negatives. GC-MS analysis confirmed the presence of sandarac and beeswax and detected the presence of a pine resin, an unidentified oil, and other constituents that were not detected by FTIR. The technique may warrant further experimentation when used in conjunction with other analytical methods. Both FTIR and GC-MS, used in tandem, proved quite useful in ascertaining the individual coatings. While it is always preferable to use only nondestructive analysis, to be absolutely certain about the coatings a few minute samples had to be taken. These results are, it is to be hoped, only the beginning of a database that will aid future research.
Using technology to understand art is certainly an irony not lost on a conservator, but it is nowhere more poignant that at the dawn of photography. Though its evolution can be seen as a series of technical innovations, photography's first generation was steeped in pretechnological traditions, particularly the fine arts in Flachéron's case. When he embraced this new technology, he brought to it techniques of drawing and painting that allowed him to manipulate his negatives to an aesthetic end. Perhaps in this way, Flachéron used art to understand technology.