Photograph conservation is the study of the physical care and treatment of photographic materials, including an in-depth understanding of how photographs are made, and the causes and prevention of deterioration. Conservators use this knowledge to treat photographic materials, stabilizing them from further deterioration, and sometimes restoring them for aesthetic purposes. Photograph conservation is distinguished from digital or optical restoration, which are concerned with a copy of the original image rather than the original photographic material.
While conservation can improve the appearance of a photograph, image quality is not the primary purpose of conservation. Enjoyment of the photographic image is generally enhanced by viewing a print in good condition and without disfiguring stains, tears, or other image or object deterioration. Therefore, conservators will try to improve the visual appearance of a photograph as much as possible, while also ensuring its long-term survival, and adhering to their Code of Ethics.
Connoisseurship is a field in which photograph conservators often play an important role. Their understanding of the physical object and its structure makes them uniquely suited to a technical examination of the photograph, which can reveal clues about how, when, and where it was made.
Conservation treatments range from very simple tear repairs or flattening to more complex treatments such as stain removal. Treatments vary widely depending on the type of photograph and its intended use.
Photograph preservation, the preventive care of photograph collections, is an important aspect of conservation. Recent decades have seen an increasing awareness of the need for preventive conservation through proper climate control and high-quality storage facilities.
Materials addressed by photograph conservators range from the early daguerreotype, ambrotype, and tintype images of the 19th century, to the gelatin silver and chromogenic prints of the 20th century, and even the digital printing processes of today. Photograph conservation does not normally include moving image materials, which by their nature require a very different approach. Film preservation concerns itself with these materials.
Photograph degradation, preservation, and artistic value
A long life expectancy also requires minimal usage and maximum storage, but art and historical artifacts exist for consumption and enrichment and without exhibition these objects have no public audience. Reading rooms requiring lengthy application processes for use and rigid security measures limit their consumers to scholars, researchers and students. Digitization of collections at the item level will help to create surrogates that can be used for research purposes, lessening use of the original photograph. Limited access to a collection undermines the motivation for preservation by marginalizing the population who stands to benefit from a preserved item. Photographs have the potential to reach across language barriers with their implied meanings, and so the original content should be considered of value. The time an item spends away from its repository and waiting for repairs is wasted time that might be better used being available to researchers. Deterioration of an object can detract from the item's original value. Preservation is a means of maintaining that value.
In the art world, there is another side to this issue that is concerned with the monetary value of an image. Galleries in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City send new works to conservation facilities in order to assure new collectors that an art purchase will become a financially solvent investment. Some skeptics ascertain that art conservation practices exist for the preservation of investments and not for the care of fine art. When artists offer older works or pieces created during their art education that have not been treated by conservators, galleries face a difficult situation because later conservation efforts could jeopardize aesthetics and, as the skeptics argue, will simply not earn the gallery as much money because they can’t be guaranteed. These works often cannot be preserved at all. Most living photographers have begun to produce their recent works using sophisticated film technologies and durable papers. If modern photographs cannot be salvaged without significant threat to content, older items of significance present an even larger problem to the preservation community.
Art historians commonly place a high value on untouched, original works despite their current condition. Limiting preservation to the best practice standards established by the preservation community is advised. This philosophy benefits future researchers who will value these images for their content and context. We must examine carefully the changes we decide to make when preserving an object, as these repairs will be permanent. In color photography, a balance between viable preservation of context should be weighted carefully with the same in the content.
An important way in which old photographs can be preserved for posterity is by scanning the image and converting into a digital file. The same method then also allows access by a much wider public, especially where the images have intrinsic historic value. For example, the photographic collection of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 made by the request of the official inquiry have been digitised and disseminated more widely. Only the positive prints survive, owing to the widespread practice of recycling the original glass negatives to reclaim the silver content. Even when carefully preserved and kept in the dark, damage can occur through intermittent exposure to light, as shown by damage to the image of the intact bridge (at right).
In the United States, the national membership organization of conservation professionals is the American Institute for Conservation (AIC). The Photographic Materials Group (PMG) is a specialty group within the AIC concerned with photograph conservation. The International Council of Museums Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC) is an international conservation organization with a Photographic Records Working Group analogous to PMG.
Education and Training
Photograph conservators can be found in museums, archives, and libraries, as well as in private practice. Conservators often have earned their Master’s degrees in art conservation, though many have also been trained through apprenticeship. They often have backgrounds in art history, chemistry, or photography. Graduate schools in art conservation in the United States have been established at New York University, Buffalo State College, University of Delaware, and The University of Texas at Austin. Postgraduate training is generally done by fellowships such as those currently offered, by the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at the George Eastman House.
Conservation Training Programs in the United States
- Buffalo State College
- The Institute of Fine Arts- New York University
- The University of Delaware
- The University of Texas at Austin