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Tru Vue blog: Compensation for Loss of Photographic Materials

Katy Glen - Paper & Photographs Conservator at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation & State Library of Victoria - took on a week-long workshop at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, between 23 and 27 April 2018. Here she details her experience, which was made possible thanks to a Tru Vue CPD grant.

george_eastman.jpgGeorge Eastman Museum - Katy Glen

‘Better is the enemy of good.’ These words were frequently quoted during a recent week-long workshop focussing on the inpainting, retouching and infilling of photographs at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. Jim Bernstein, private conservator of paintings and mixed media in San Francisco, was offered this advice early in his long career and emphasised its continued importance and relevance. A light touch is preferred, resisting the temptation to push for a ‘better’ result. Photographs have many differing characteristics, but usually exhibit subtle tonal gradations and perhaps a granular or colloidal appearance. Jim’s mantra seems particularly apt when considering how best to approach the compensation for loss in these delicate and unforgiving surfaces.

Co-instructors Debra Evans and Victoria Binder, both from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, added immense experience and innovative thought in their specialties of paper and photograph conservation. The group of fifteen conservators were presented with a lot of information through lectures and demonstrations and then let loose into the studio lined with materials, media, tools and equipment to explore and experiment. 

pigments.jpgPigments - Katy Glen

Photographic material presents many unique challenges when considering loss compensation. The image may be sealed within a layer of a highly compact sandwich structure making filling material and technique a crucial component of the overall success of treatment. I found micro-cellulose powder, toasted to various depths of tone, applied on a ‘gel’ of Methocel combinations to be very workable. Flügger Acrylspartel, a prepared filling putty of calcium carbonate in a methacrylate acrylic base, was a popular choice among participants for experimentation as a filler, also a ‘baryta’ layer prepared using Aquazol®, barium sulphate, titanium dioxide and kaolin.

Amongst the myriad of pigments, Jim expounded the merits of certain colours which I will now include in my palette. Among them Zirconium White and Raw Sienna for translucency, and Titanium Orange to help lighten and give warmth to a black. We also explored the full gamut of blacks and earthy tones useful for achieving the turbid effect of many photographs, and addressed ways to impart a glossy or matte surface texture to varying degrees. 

inpainting_palette.jpgInpainting palette for photographs - Katy Glen

I discovered that digital fills could be immensely useful, particularly in private practice. Achieving an accurate colour match seems to be the biggest obstacle, which Victoria Binder has tackled by creating automatic contact sheets using the Photoshop ‘Actions’ feature to generate variations of a fill from which the closest colour match can be selected. These can then be saved to reapply to future projects or shared with others.

The workshop presented a rare opportunity to learn from experts in the field in a supportive, casual environment with a comprehensive supply of materials available for experimentation. Our host, Taina Meller, photograph conservator at George Eastman Museum, was tireless in her efforts to provide an enriching learning environment, augmented by a close study of interesting examples of historic and contemporary loss compensation in the photographic collection of the Museum.  I am very grateful to Tru Vue and Icon for awarding the CPD grant that allowed me to attend this workshop.


All images: Katy Glen


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