Through the conservation keyhole: behind photographs in Erskine Project

Photography became accessible to the average person, allowing amateur photographers to document day-to-day occurrences such as changing a tyre. There is only one question – can we take proper care of old photographs?

6In the Archives and Special Collections, we regularly face the challenge of dealing with a variety of different types of photographs and we deal with large numbers of photographs collections. Without detailed knowledge and understanding of the photographic processes used in making a photograph, it is extremely difficult to determine the environmental conditions needed for the photograph’s long-term preservation. Some part of our conservator job is to understand the materials and processes involved in the photographic technique and give you advice on how to care for them and preserve or conserve them properly. Our work often covers many different aspects of preservation and conservation, for instance, we assess the light levels during display or exhibition and decide how best to transport or handle photograph collections.

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We need to identify the factors that affect the overall condition of the entire collection and also single photographs. This includes different types of assessment such as preservation needs: collection-level assessments and item-by-item assessments.

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Last year while working on the Erskine Project, we were faced with the challenge of trying to identify variety types of the photographs from 1916 to a diversity of 21st century photographs and understand the threats and to respond through proper recommendation for future storage and handling collections. For example, albumen prints from the collection have an image formed by silver particles bound to a paper base by a coating of ‘white’ of hen’s eggs just as a typical “black and white” photographs from the 1950’s will have a silver-based image to a paper base by gelatin. Sometimes we work with the digital copy of the photograph prints.

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What is the purpose of that information? Everyone knows silver can tarnish, paper can develop creases, tears and folds, and that gelatin can become discoloured, brittle, and provide an excellent source of nutrition for mould, insects and other pests.

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Though examination with a microscope we assessed not only the pattern of the image and how photographs are made.

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We also use microscope examination for investigating the image condition, all scratches and any deformations on the top photographs layer. All that information later helps us to decide preservation and conservation treatment for the long-term care.

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In this post, we would like to share some images from our assessment to help better understand photographs, what a photograph is, in terms of its material make up and how we have to look at the photographs.

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PS.

If you have any conservation questions, just be in Library Talk Lab at 11 am on Wednesday on 14th December, our colleague will talk about the new conservation studio.  



Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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