Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Conserving photographs: it's hard to catch your breath

"Most photographs spend their lives in the dark." This sad-but-true maxim, spoken by Sylvie Penichon, is the least of her worries. Penichon is a conservator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth, TX, but not for long: she was recently hired to replace Douglas Severson, conservator of photographs at the Chicago Art Institute.

Photograph conservation is at a critical juncture. Not only has digital format begun to swallow "older" photographic processes whole, but artists are approaching their art form in ever-expansive ways. Take Matthew Brandt, who uses a Polaroid negative as his canvas, so to speak. By opting to use a material that wasn't intended for longevity, Brandt poses a quandary for conservators and collectors.
Matthew Brandt, F416880691 A and B, 2011
Polaroids (positive and Negative)

Once conservators like Penichon devise a solution to best-preserve Brandt's work, another photographer will inevitably come along with a new combination of techniques. Back to the drawing board.

Then there are new modes of presentation, like exposing images onto a patch of grass, which presents an obvious problem. Even if the grass is special-grade, grown in a laboratory to last, etc., it will not have the longevity that, say, cobalt blue would on an Islamic vase. What to do? If watering the grass is out of the question, the best alternative is to delay the process of decay. But how?
Ackroyd and Harvey, Sunbathers, 2000
Grass and clay

Penichon and her colleagues face a bottomless pit of conservation challenges, not only because technology is accelerating at a rapid pace, but because artists are growing ever more experimental with these technologies. Moreover, the death of some technologies has given rise to artists' attempt to resurrect them, or at least memorialize them. How does a conservator preserve a material, like chromogenic color film ("Kodachrome"), that is nearly obsolete and for which there are few resources left to ensure its preservation?

What if the artist doesn't mind if their work deteriorates, or in fact expects it to deteriorate sooner than later? Does a curator or conservator have the authority to ignore this, for the sake of the art's posterity? These are the challenges we face as sentimental creatures with foresight.

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