A Day in the Life of a Photograph Conservation Intern

I have a little over one month remaining of my third-year internship and career as a graduate student. Before I know it, I will be packing up my things and moving to a new destination—this time for a post-graduate fellowship in photograph conservation at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art to work with a fantastic photography collection, excellent mentor, and intelligent and supportive museum staff for the next two years. Working with one of the nation’s largest repositories of American photography, I will have yet another great opportunity to continue learning and developing as a photograph conservator and effective steward for the preservation of our cultural heritage. But first there are many checks to be marked on my to-do list. Aside from the logistics of moving, I have research projects to complete, treatments to finish, and my final portfolio to put together and polish up.

My name is Tatiana Cole, and I am a member of the WUDPAC class of 2012. I am specializing in the preservation of photographs, and for my third-year internship, I have had the privilege of working at the Weissman Preservation Center of Harvard University Library.

Weissman Preservation Center, Harvard University Library. Photo by Paul Warchol, 2006.

Home to more than eight million photography-related materials, Harvard Library’s collection always has something interesting to see and new to learn. Today I completed a treatment that involved recovering about 30 photographs from the late 1960s that had been mailed to a Harvard professor by a family member of one of the US presidents. The prints were “blocked” or stuck together as a result of a past water-related emergency. They first needed to be removed from the envelope they were stuck to and then released from one another. This was accomplished with the aid of local application of steam, a Teflon spatula, and delicate maneuvering.

Using locally applied steam to release prints stuck to each other.

The gelatin emulsion on many of the prints was severely compromised as a result of previous water damage and mold. To prevent further loss of image material, tenuous areas were consolidated with fresh gelatin in a dust-free chamber.

The prints also had to be delicately surface cleaned to remove any mold and/or imbedded paper fibers transferred from neighboring prints, and they needed to be flattened. The next steps will include taking after-treatment documentation images and providing new archival housing for the collection that is appropriate for how it will be accessed and handled by the academic community. Finally, I will communicate with librarians and curators about transferring the prints back to their repository or to Harvard Library’s Imaging Services for digitization.

Consolidating prints with weak gelatin emulsion using fresh gelatin.

My to-do list for the rest of the week includes analyzing several photographic prints to determine whether the prints have experienced any fading or change in color; completing another treatment of a photograph depicting an immigrant ship from the mid-19th century with severe tears, creases, and losses; researching methods for preserving 3-D aspects of a collection of color prints from the 1980s; attending meetings; and going to an exhibit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology entitled From Daguerreotype to Digital: Anthropology and Photography. My evenings will be consumed by other research projects, good-bye dinners of delicious fresh fish, and taking some of my last runs along the Charles River before heading out west.

So far, Tatiana Cole has spent her life dancing, studying biology and chemistry, and pursuing a career in art conservation with a focus on photography-related materials. She also is interested in theoretical issues concerning the preservation of contemporary installation and time-based media art, as well as interacting with artists. 

Winterthur is celebrating 60 years of graduate programs in art conservation and material culture studies in the current exhibition, A Lasting Legacy: Sixty Years of Winterthur Graduate Programs, on view through June 16, 2013.

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