Purple Blueprints

Great prepares to hang blueprint paper samples in mason jars.

My name is Greta Glaser, and I’m a member of the WUDPAC class of 2013, majoring in photographic materials. My 2012 summer internship is in the Photograph Conservation Laboratory at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where I am working under the supervision of Nora Kennedy, the Met’s Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs. I am participating in the Met’s summer internship program along with 39 other graduate and undergraduate students from around the world. Together, we engage in seminars on adult education, explore the galleries and conservation labs with the Met’s staff, and lead public tours of our own design.

One of my major projects in the lab this summer involves researching the effects of light and humidity on blueprint paper. A spectacular artwork by Francesca Woodman entitled Blueprint for a Temple is currently hanging in the galleries. It’s a collage of 29 separate photographs printed on an architect’s blueprint paper called “diazo” or “diazotype” and pieced together to invoke the image of an ancient structure. However, one questionable quality about this photographic work is that it is not, despite its namesake, blue. Although the image is indeed blue in some areas, it is purple for the most part and the photograph conservators at the Met are currently investigating why this is so.

Taking color readings on the sample papers with an instrument called a Spectrophotometer.

Nora Kennedy and Research Fellow in Photograph Conservation Katie Sanderson helped me develop an experiment to study blueprint paper similar to what Woodman used to create her artwork. I created a positive image, consisting of strips of little one-inch squares that range from black to white, in Photoshop and printed this out on a transparent plastic film. I exposed the blueprint papers to ultraviolet light through the transparency and then put the papers in a glass tray filled with simple household ammonia. The fumes rising from the liquid ammonia are what activate or “develop” the dye in the paper and turn it blue.

Dropping samples into a jar.

I then proceeded to measure the color of each of the samples with a special instrument. This amounted to 900 measurements (and it took me a day and a half)! I put all of the samples in mason jars with special solutions made from glycerol and water to control their environments, except one group of five that was sealed in a light-tight envelope, which will act as the control. Half of the samples will stay in light at all times and half in complete darkness. At the end of the summer, when my experiment is over, I will measure each color again and calculate how much the colors may have changed.

One of my other responsibilities during my internship is to perform gallery talks for the public. For my upcoming July 19 talk, I’ve chosen to discuss conservation issues in contemporary photography, using artworks currently on display from the Met’s collections, including Blueprint for a Temple as well as works by Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Lutz Bacher, Andrea Fraser, and Peter Nagy.

Greta Glaser earned her B.A. in art and art history from the College of William and Mary. She always knew that she wanted a career in the arts, so when she discovered conservation, which also combined her love for science, she was sold. During her time at William and Mary she completed an honors thesis on paintings conservation with high honors while working in Colonial Williamsburg’s paintings conservation laboratory under the supervision of Shelley Svoboda.

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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