Volume 7, Number 4, 1998

On Research

Old photos given new life

In the hushed atmosphere of UD's photograph conservation lab, three graduate students work quietly, with painstaking patience, restoring, retouching and refurbishing photos from years gone by.

One bathes a platinum print in acidic water in a pan set in bright sunlight to help reduce yellowing. Another replaces the torn edges of a photo of Mrs. Calvin Coolidge playing Santa, and a third uses a special eraser to dislodge old, yellowed adhesive stuck on the back of a print.

Next year, conservators similar to these will benefit from a $360,000 grant recently awarded to the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The money will be used to fund a series of workshops for photograph conservators around the country over the next four years.

The intensive, week-long seminars will focus on areas of photo conservation that aren't traditionally covered in courses at the three U.S. institutions that offer graduate degrees in the specialization-UD, the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and Buffalo State College.

With the goal of furthering the field of photo conservation, "We looked at our programs and asked, 'What are the clear gaps in the education and training of photograph conservators that we could address with intensive one-week workshops?" Debra Hess Norris, director of the UD program and associate professor of art conservation, says.

The first workshop will be held in New York to discuss pictorial processes and deal with photos taken at the turn of the century. During this first seminar, students will hear talks by scientists and photograph conservation professionals and learn more about photography processes of that time. They also will tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view examples of the photography.

In this workshop, students will fabricate photographs made during the turn-of-the-century (platinum, gum bichromate and carbon) and discuss their deterioration characteristics and preservation alternatives.

A second workshop, planned for the Art Institute of Chicago, will discuss contemporary and digital photography, individual treatments and caring for collections.

The workshops are designed for current students, recent alumni and working professionals who are committed to careers in photograph conservation, Norris says.

Three UD students, all members of the Class of 1999, who have decided to major in paper conservation, with a minor in photo conservation, are Elizabeth Freeman of Washington, D.C., Jeff Dunbar of southern Vermont and Cyntia Karnes of Tucson, Ariz.

All said they chose to enter UD's highly competitive art conservation program to work with its highly regarded faculty.

Dunbar once dreamed of being an artist or architect, two fields he explored as an undergraduate at Skidmore College. There, the college's curator of permanent art collections sparked Dunbar's interest in art conservation and museum work. During a semester of museum studies in Washington, D.C., he interned in the paper conservation laboratory at the Freer Gallery of Art and in the administrative offices of the Hillwood Museum.

After graduating, he completed coursework in organic chemistry and carried out a second conservation internship in the furniture conservation laboratory of the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites. A special interest is the incorporation of digital images in his treatments.

This past summer, Dunbar worked at Princeton University and, during his third year in the UD program, will work at the Library of Congress.

Freeman graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with bachelor's degrees in art history and in art. She pursued her dream of working in a museum by accepting a position in the building department of the J. Paul Getty Trust. The department guided the planning and construction of the new Getty Center. As assistant to the project managers, Freeman developed an appreciation for the requirements and goals of the different museum programs, including the conservation departments.

After moving to Washington with her husband, Freeman interned and worked in the exhibition design and graphic arts department at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

In 1993, she began a two-year internship at Conservation of Art on Paper, where she worked on a variety of paper objects, including a letter from George Washington to his dentist.

As the conservation technician in the painting gallery at the National Gallery of Art, she conducted technical examinations using infra-red reflectology and X-radiography on the gallery's and other museum's paintings.

Over the summer, Freeman worked at a new conservation facility in Liverpool, England. Next year, she will work in New York at the Museum of Modern Art.

Karnes graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's degree in anthropology with an emphasis in archaeology, and another bachelor's degree in the classics.

Her interest in conservation developed while participating in the excavation of a Roman villa in Lugnano, Italy, where she assisted the site conservator with the cleaning of mosaic tesserae, fresco fragments and ceramics.

She volunteered her assistance to the conservator at the Arizona Historical Society while finishing her last two years of classes and after graduation in 1980, moved, with her husband, to Washington, D.C. There, she began working as a conservator technician at the National Archives.

For five years, she has enjoyed being able to work firsthand with artifacts and documents spanning the course of U.S. history. Her work has ranged from the treatment of a 1763 gouache design of the Great Seal of the United States to original World War II propaganda posters; from the custom housing of Kennedy assassination artifactual evidence to the photo duplication of deteriorating X-rays used as evidence in a Supreme Court trial protecting civil rights.

In her third year in the UD program, Karnes will work with old master paintings and drawings at the Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

For more information about the Winterthur/UD Art Conservation program, call (302) 831-2479.

-Beth Thomas