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Tru Vue Blog: Conserving 20th century colour photographs

Our latest Tru Vue grantee Ioannis Vasallos recieved funding to attend the Getty Conservation workshop '20th Century Colour Photographs: Contemporary Practice, Identification and Preservation' in  August this year. 

At the beginning of August, I had an exciting opportunity to attend a specialised workshop organised by the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, as part of the annual series, Current issues in Photograph Conservation. The 5 days’ workshop focused on colour photographic processes invented and used mainly during the 20th century, and involved theoretical and practical sessions. I would like to thank in advance the National Library of Scotland, Icon and Tru Vue for their generous support towards the costs involved attending this workshop.


Interior of the Conservation Training Laboratories at the Getty Villa 

The 20th century was a revolutionary era for photography, during which many processes were invented to record and print photographs in full colour. Examples of these processes can now been found in many archives, libraries and fine art collections. Most of these processes have now been abandoned, and the limited information about their complicated structure and materials usually pose preservation risks and challenges to conservators. During this workshop, participants learnt about the history and the materials of these colour processes. The chemistry and the structure of every process were outlined, as well as the common types of deterioration that are likely to be encountered. The theory sessions were followed by identification exercises where participants had the chance to look at prints and observe details in their structure under high magnification.

Best practices for housing, storage environment and display were also discussed. In the afternoons, all participants received samples of various colour processes and were assigned to test particular treatments on them. These sessions were of great benefit, as there was the chance to perform tests on the samples using treatments that we usually employ for monochromatic photographs, and observe the results. Some innovative treatments were also tested on sample prints.


Retouching tests on a sample colour print using Ilford Cibachrome retouching colours

The knowledge gained during the workshop made participants more confident when dealing with colour photographs and gave directions to resources if further research is needed. Sharing this knowledge is very important, in order to help other conservators, dealing with similar collections, become familiar with the various processes and make more informed decisions about their preservation or potential treatments.  

Ioannis Vasallos is a Photographic Materials Conservator. Ioannis is a former Icon Intern, who following two years at the Rijksmuseum is now Photographic Collections Conservator at the National Library of Scotland. 

Lead Image: Colour photographs sample set for treatments tests, photography Ioannis Vasallos
Image 1: Getty Studio, photography Ioannis Vasallos
Image 2: Retouching tests, photography Janka Krizanova


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