A Gathering of the Platinistas

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With the FAIC Platinum and Palladium Photography Symposium in Washington, D.C. now a couple months behind me, I can look back and reflect upon how much I have applied my newfound knowledge into my daily work.

To summarize, the program included a full day workshop, a day-long tour, and two days of symposium presentations. The tours to see collections at the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American History, and the Library of Congress offered an opportunity to see examples of a variety of prints close up. Not only did the collections include a breadth of subject matter, they also showed the many conditions, tones, and techniques that we would hear about later in the week. The workshop happened concurrently to the tours in the photograph conservation lab at the National Gallery of Art, where Mike Ware, Pradip Malde, Chris Maines, and Adrienne Lundgren demonstrated three versions of printing in platinum and palladium (see images) and gave the participants time to try their hand at each.

Finally, the symposium talks presented the thorough research that the many conservators, scientists, curators, historians, and artists had been conducting over the course of years. The wealth of recently-discovered information cannot be conveyed except through the much-needed publication, fortunately expected in print in a few years’ time.

Ultimately, in only a few short days, the Symposium showed me that platinum and palladium photographs are not always what we previously expected; they can be in excellent condition, faded, or stained, neutral or warm in tone, contact printed, enlarged, or even selectively printed with the use of glycerin…and the list goes on. Although I do not work with photographs on a daily basis, I have already found use for my improved identification skills and look forward to attempting some of the proposed treatment techniques, like iron chelation, in the future.


*Many thanks to the John Krill-Betty Fiske Scholarship Award for funding this experience, and to Michelle Sullivan for sharing her images of the workshop.

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New tools for the outreachbox

An ever-increasing use of social media has made the internet the way to go for public outreach. Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress have all been done (yes, I say this as a blogger), but video hasn’t really been used to it’s full potential for engaging a non-specialist audience.

Leading the way for the humanities is a website called Smarthistory, now associated with the Khan Academy, an online library of educational resources. Smarthistory is essentially an interactive art historical textbook that utilizes contextual information and links to other websites along with short documentary-like videos on works of art. Smarthistory creators Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker began the site in 2005 as a blog to aid in art history lectures. With the support of the Kress Foundation and the Khan Academy, this non-profit organization has become a leader in providing course materials as well as an online community for the discipline of art history.

Recently, Beth and Steven collaborated with FAIC and the conservation department at the Met to organize a workshop geared toward conservation-specific outreach, titled Media Tools for Conservators. I was fortunate to attend this workshop, along with 5 other recent graduates and 7 mid-career professionals. The dynamic of the workshop was great, and not only did we learn about the software that Smarthistory uses to make their videos (Garage Band for audio and ScreenFlow to incorporate the audio with images), but we had the opportunity to capture some of our own conversations using audio recorders.

The group hard at work exchanging ideas

In the morning we paired up to talk about specific conservation projects that we had prepared in advance, and in the afternoon we took advantage of the Met’s collection and experimented with recording conversations about entirely new objects. The entire workshop was a lot of fun, but the most important conversation that day was the one about implementing this technology into everyday work. As conservators, we often run into sensitivity issues, either about copyright or institutional regulations, and that may throw a wrench in the plan to discuss a treatment. But what many conservators forget is that we have a lot of specialized knowledge, and that knowledge may be interesting to people that know absolutely nothing about conservation. So, you CAN make a video about conservation in general, or about a personal object, or my favorite: pair up with a curator to talk about a work of art. Be creative.

When I left the workshop, my head was spinning with ideas on how to use these tools in my own work. There is such potential for making professional and interesting videos. Hopefully my enthusiasm for video-making will spread, because your videos are needed for this new site devoted entirely to conservation; introducing ConservationReel!

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An EPiC weekend

Instead of sleeping in on Sunday morning, a group of eager conservators (myself included) gathered at the Kremer Pigments NYC location for a watercolor workshop sponsored by the Emerging Professionals in Conservation. EPiC is a sub-group of the New York Regional Association for Conservation, begun in 2011, that hosts lab tours, workshops, and social gatherings for emerging conservators. I’m so happy that I was finally able to take advantage of an EPiC event!

Thanks to Becca Pollak, previous Kremer employee and current Buffalo student, 14 workshop participants were able to learn about the nuances of pigments, and how to make watercolor paints. After a quick demo by Becca, each person received one pigment to transform into 14 half pans of watercolor. Surprisingly, it was a lot of work to mix the pigments with the other ingredients (alcohol, water, and medium) and to evenly coat each particle…and we probably could have mulled a lot longer to achieve a more consistent watercolor.


Some pigments required more medium or more mulling than others–all tips that Becca had learned from her many years on the job. My burnt umber was fairly easy to work with, and looked like a delicious chocolate fudge at one point. Actually, all of the pigments looked good enough to eat! As great and fun as it was to create the watercolors myself and know what all of the ingredients were, I would likely need much more practice to equal the quality of the paints that are mulled for an hour in the machine. For now, I think I’ll stick with the store-bought version. But if ever I need a specific pigment (from a specific geographic region, for example), I definitely feel prepared.

Besides being my first experience making watercolors, this was also my first time into the Kremer store. It’s a really cool place, filled with pigments, mediums, adhesives, and everything you could possible need for art-making and conservation. What I liked best were the pre-made sets of pigments for interior decoration, stone inpainting, frames, and more. Maybe this is a conservator thing, but seeing shelves full of pigments arranged in a color spectrum is just so satisfying. I’m looking forward to heading back to Kremer in the next week to pick up my finished pan of watercolors!

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A darkroom in the park

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Saturday was a HOT day for an outdoor photography workshop, but it was well worth the pouring sweat to learn from Lisa Elmaleh how to produce tintypes. The workshop, offered through the Center for Alternative Photography, took place in a tent out at Photoville. In six hours we covered the entire process, from coating the plate with collodion to varnishing the final tintype.

Historically, tintypes were created with sheets of japanned iron (not tin), unlike the coated aluminum that we used last weekend for its stability and low cost. We also varnished the completed plates with Soluvar in place of gum sandarac and lavender oil, to avoid having to heat the resin. The result is still the same, though, adding a protective coating to prevent silver mirroring. The rest of the wet collodion process–used for both negatives and direct positives–was historically accurate, and can be seen from start to finish in this wonderful video from the George Eastman House (below).  I really commend tintype photographers for their hand skills and intuition about exposure and development times. The hardest part of the process, however, is completing every step on the spot before the collodion starts to dry!

I just want to say thank you to the Professional Development Award Committee for granting me the funds for this workshop. I’m positive (pun intended) this experience will be helpful in my future as a photograph conservator!

**Please don’t forget to wear personal protective equipment in your practice–gloves and goggles WILL prevent cancer and blindness.

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A crash course

Yesterday, I took a break from my vacation to head to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first of a two-day workshop on photograph conservation. Taught by Debbie Hess Norris and Katie Sanderson, the workshop was a crash course in photographic materials and preservation for a group of fifteen doctoral students from around the country, each participating in an educational program at the museum. The enthusiasm of the students seemed to fuel the enthusiasm of the instructors and group leaders, so I was really lucky to sit-in on this dynamic course.

Debbie shows the group some examples of albumen prints.

Creating the compositions for our photogenic drawings.

My first visit to the Photograph Conservation Department at the Met was back in January, when the WUDPAC class of 2014 visited as part of our photo block. If I hadn’t already decided to major in photograph conservation at that point, the Met’s collection would certainly have swayed me. The prints that I saw then, and again yesterday, are aesthetically gorgeous and in impeccable condition. I almost didn’t recognize the albumen prints because of their white paper, purplish-brown tonalities, and crisp images. If you’d like to see some examples, but aren’t conveniently located near the Met, you can check out over 33,000 images of the collection online.

Examples of salted paper prints fixed/stabilized in different solutions. Clockwise from the upper left: hypo (sodium thiosulfate), sodium chloride, potassium iodide, and potassium bromide. Notice the range of tonalities.







The workshop was the perfect opportunity for me to revisit the information covered in photo block, in preparation for my second year in the WUDPAC program. I also got to make salted paper prints! Katie demonstrated William Henry Fox Talbot’s process of creating photogenic drawings, and described the difference between stabilizing solution and fixer. One of the most important things I took away was a glimpse at how to successfully teach photograph conservation to non-conservators.

Being a Monday, the museum was unfortunately closed, so I didn’t have the chance to walk through the galleries, but I did enjoy a nice lunch AND dinner with some amazing colleagues. I’m looking forward to traveling back to NYC this weekend for a photo workshop and for the start of my summer internship at MoMA.

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Glassblowing is NOT Like Papermaking

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that glass is different from paper; one is three-dimensional, the other is two; one breaks when you drop it, the other doesn’t; one requires major physical labor and sweat to produce, the other only a simple and meditative process. I did know these things when I signed up for a two-day intensive glassblowing course, so I went to East Falls Glassworks prepared to step outside my comfort zone. Guess what, it wasn’t all that bad! At the low points, I was exhausted, sweaty, and covered in charred newspaper from the cooling pad, but my efforts were channeled into producing beautiful, hand-crafted objects that will make wonderful gifts and possible additions to my portfolio.

Me working on a vessel, day 2 (photo by Eric Saperstein)

Early in day 1, the instructors, Ben and Chris, demoed the art of blowing a glass vessel. It looked so simple. What they failed to express was that the multiple steps have to happen quickly or you could end up heating and re-heating the vessel every time you want to make an adjustment…or, worst case scenario, you could accidentally drop a piece on the floor and crack it! Yes, my second cup broke at the very end of the process and I wanted to cry. From that I learned the importance of relinquishing control and working as a team! It takes a minimum of 3 people to produce a glass vessel: the gaffer (the artist, I guess you could say) and 1-2 assistants, depending on their skill and the level of difficulty/size of the piece. You can read more about the process and history of glassblowing on the East Falls Glassworks website, or on wikipedia (sorry to be referencing wikipedia, but glassblowing resources are less than abundant).

Mosaic glass perfume bottle, 1st century BCE-early 1st century CE, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As early as the first century BC, artisans began blowing glass vessels instead of forming and casting them. It’s amazing how beautiful and sophisticated the forms looked, even at this early stage. Glass provides a solution to many utilitarian needs, but also serves as decoration in vases, chandeliers, stained glass, and jewelry. Dale Chiuly is a contemporary artist using glass in a utilitarian and aesthetic fashion. Chiuly plays with the material in a fantastical way, making pieces that are colorful, whimsical, and flourish commercially as well as in a fine art setting. Chiuly is a great contrast to Josiah McElheny, another contemporary glass artist who uses the medium conceptually. To me, McElhey takes a very traditional craft and transforms it into something that is thought-provoking while still being formally intriguing. Good luck to the conservators, though, because mirrored glass is not something I’d like to deal with!

Dale Chiuly, The Sun, 2008, de Young Museum

Josiah McElheny, Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism, 2007, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Paper’s Past

Historic Rittenhousetown is the site of the first paper mill in British North America, and is located in Germantown at the edge of Wissahickon creek. William Rittenhouse acquired his paper making skills in Holland, before moving to the United States and beginning his own business in 1690. By the late 18th century, Rittenhouse owned three separate mills in and around Philadelphia. The Rittenhouse family continued their paper monopoly until the Industrial Revolution, when the Fourdrinier machine made handmade paper obsolete. After the mill closed, the land was purchased from the city of Philadelphia and the Fairmount Park Commission, and was restored to become a National Historic Landmark in 1984. Today, visitors can take tours of the old mill, learn to make paper through workshops, or just take a walk along the creek and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

I have learned quite a bit about paper while working in the paper lab at the PMA, and I have read my share of books on how paper is made, but a hands-on workshop really is the way to go; not only is it fun to be creative and work with my hands, but it is educational as well! On Saturday, I took a Japanese Papermaking course with Chris Dellandre at Historic Rittenhousetown. There were about 10 people in the class, all artistic and crafty in their own way, and all with some great questions about the process. Chris described how she went about buying the fibers–kozo, gampi, and albaca–and how she cooked them in soda ash before beating them to a pulp (literally). It may have been helpful to go through that process myself, but it was kind of her to do all of that work so we could devote more time to papermaking!

I made about 25 sheets of 8″ x 12″ paper, some stenciled, some with twine or leaves interwoven, and some just plain and simple. They turned out really well after being dried flat against my mirrors at home, and I would definitely do it again. Now, to decide how to use all this paper!

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Water and Works on Paper

On May 5th, I joined 120 other museum/conservation professionals in participating in a live webinar presented by the American Association of Museums. This online seminar focused on how to respond to water emergencies in a museum setting, and, more specifically, how to salvage books, photographs, documents, and other works on paper. The advertisement for this seminar caught my eye because, while working at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco just last year, the Museum Services division was revising their emergency response manual. The webinar provided the perfect opportunity to brush up on emergency response procedures (did you know you only react at 20% capacity during an emergency?!), and I was pleased to see that the staff at the Asian had also logged on for the informative presentations.

First, let me say that the webinar system ran surprisingly smoothly, with the presentation and closed captions on the right and presenter’s photo, attendee list and chat box on the left. Not once did my system freeze, and the questions and poll answers all appeared in real time; maybe I’ve been scarred from years of sluggish dial-up, but the webinar really was a good substitute for a live seminar, especially since I could relax on the couch while watching it :).

On to the content: Julie Page of the Western States & Territories Preservation Assistance Service began by giving an overview of possible water problems and how to respond. That segued very nicely into the presentation by Theresa Voellinger of the National Park Service. She explained the structure of the Incident Command System (ICS) originally used by the California Department of Forestry and Fire to contain wildfires in the 1970s; within that framework, Theresa also gave specific steps to take when dealing with these problems affecting paper objects: mold, tidelines, blocking, bleeding and warping. Ellen Carrleeof the Alaska State Museums next told the story of a water leak at a site of the Alaska State Libraries in 2005. Most helpful was the month long timeline she gave for the entire recovery process and a list of actions that would have been useful at the time. California Historical Society‘s Mary Morganti also listed “what we learned” and “what worked” in her description of a water leak at her site in San Francisco in 2008. She concluded by confiding in the attendees an estimate of how much the entire event cost to the Society; all I can say is YIKES!

What I took away from the presentations was a better understanding of the exact steps to take in order to salvage works on paper. It was also clear how important it is to communicate with the people involved in the response and to keep very detailed and organized records of each step taken. Ultimately, safety is first, which is why we must be prepared for an emergency so that we are able to focus when the time comes.

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