Uniques and Multiples—a Delegates View
Can you imagine explaining a bespoke frame for three of Daguerre’s photographs at an international customs check point? Have there been any new revelations into the problematic preservation of chromogenic photographs? And is ‘Uniques’ actually a word? These issues and more were discussed with over 220 delegates from 36 countries at the September 2016 ICOM-CC Photographic Materials Working Group Meeting at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
The week kicked off with a range of workshops, including a visit to The Impossible Project. In 2008 Polaroid shut its last factory in Enschede, Netherlands, and a small team of instant film enthusiasts bought the shell of the building—there was plenty of work to come as they had to reinvent the photographic medium from scratch. Thankfully previous Polaroid workers were enthusiastic and dedicated to the cause of The Impossible Project, and refinement of the process and its stability continues in the factory today. The insightful and surprising visit revealed how much material, machinery, chemistry and pure dedication it has taken to develop film, and recently a camera, for the analogue photographic market. Impossible also provided the obligatory conference photograph with a 36 x 24” instant film shot of delegates.
‘Uniques’ was discussed at the meeting and throughout the two days of lectures. It is not a word found in a dictionary, yet is relevant to the plurality of photographic materials, and our most unique relationship to them through conservation and preservation. The concept of ‘uniques’ was revealed in a whole new context with a talk by Nora Kennedy from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met has begun a collections policy for coloured digital prints and photographs in negotiation with the artist which involves collecting two of the exact same print and accessioning them as one object. The first print is used for display, loans and research while the second print is stored as a pristine copy in preparation for the day it will replace the expired first.
Clara von Waldthausen continued the discussion about duplicating colour photographs due to inherent material instability. Reproducing an original photographic print is used to prolong the original aesthetic of that object. However, questions concerning ownership and the authentic experience from a photograph arise. Even when the same master printer and original artist are involved with duplication a change in format, colour, material processing and additions to the image itself can occur.
Photographs expose conservators to complex materials and techniques due to their creation and materiality. It also challenges us to how we value the object: as an image; as information; as a historical and artistic item. It also holds different meanings and value to the individual – a ‘receptive value’. This challenging concept was explored in a presentation by Mark Strange, who told us a story about William Partington’s photographs. 700 of Partington’s glass plate negatives of Maori people and images of the Whanganui River were recently discovered, beginning an intriguing chain of events and discussion as to who actually owns a photograph; is it the descendants of those in the images? Or the museum purchasing the physical object? And is there such a thing as reproduction rights? These issues were also raised by Christina Leber in her presentation ‘Back to the Future in Photography’. Christina questioned the ownership of fine art photographic prints, especially if there is more than one copy printed.
Conservators are ever fascinated by the Daguerreotype and one of several papers discussing this photographic format was by Bertrand Lavedrine. Three Daguerreotype plates, originally sent to Tsar Nicolas I of Russia as part of Daguerre’s business promotion in 1839, were rediscovered in 2007. Lavedrine, in conjunction with Conservation by Design, devised a new framing prototype to house and display the (as yet unsighted) three plates. The 30kg 80cm wide frame was carried into Russia as hand luggage. Created with a ‘planorama’ profile, air tight gasket, time-care mount board, Prosorb at 45% RH, carbon cloth, acrylic rods and Optium® glazing, Lavedrine described his border experience:
Border Force: What’s that??
Me: A frame.
Border Force: A frame of what??
Me: Errr…A frame…of…
Border Force: OK…ok…GO!!!
The adventure continued at the Russian Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg where an audience was entertained for three hours by Lavedrine framing up the three Daguerreotypes for the very first time (thankfully, it was a perfect fit).
The most inspiring stories came from the most confronting of disasters, as described by Rachel Tabet and Marie Louise Frank. Rachel, from the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, shared with us the challenges of implementing a preventative action plan from its infancy in a photographic museum. The challenge of having limited people dealing with humidity, power cuts, as well as an unstable political situation was recently exacerbated by pest issues as the waste management crisis in Lebanon worsened. Marie spoke of her experiences caring for collections at the City Archives of Cologne following the building collapse disaster in 2009. Once the salvageable photographic collection was collected from the collapsed Archives building it was frozen ready for an incredible management procedure of defrosting, documenting each item with photographic and written reports, treatment and rehousing with barcode identifiers in preparation for new accession numbers. A truly dedicated team worked through 18,000 archival materials in three months.
It was noted several times during the meeting that there is work to be done in the growing field of photograph conservation. Regions in Asia and Africa were under represented at this conference, continuing the trend of neglected photographic collections in these parts of the world. Anyone looking for motivation to a start regional project is recommended to contact the ever-inspirational Debra Hess Norris. Debbie spoke passionately about fundraising fundamentals and presenting project proposals and strategies to financial donors, and she is currently working on a database of ‘funders’ around the world. The presentation following was dedicated to Debbie’s hard work in advocacy (plus her love of The Beatles), and a rousing appreciation of her achievement of raising over $80 million for photograph preservation projects worldwide.
Delegates were presented with a booklet of abstracts of papers and posters. If you would like access to this information or contact details of delegates please do not hesitate to contact me. Presenters have been strongly encouraged to publish their paper through Photographic Materials Group, AIC, or Topics in Photographic Preservation journals. A list of presentations from the meeting can be found at this website: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/icom-cc.pmwg