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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Last weekend, the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) held a show at the Armory in New York. I drove up with a group of WUDPAC students and teachers to learn about what types of photographs are currently on the market and, most importantly, how much they’re selling for. I noticed that many dealers specialized in either 19th-century photographs, modern masters, or contemporary prints, and that each category focused on 1-3 processes. As expected, contemporary works included mostly oversize chromogenic and digital prints, with the exception of contemporary artists, like Sally Mann, who work in analog processes.

It was interesting for me to see how much information was included on the labels and the naming conventions for digital prints; they tended to range from specific printing processes, like inkjet, to just “archival pigment print.” It’s understandable that consistency in media ID is more important for conservators who require these details for preservation purposes, but I wonder how much collectors are interested in the longevity of their newly-purchased artwork.

Here are some of my favorites from the show:

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Summer of art

Werner Herzog, “Hearsay of the Soul” (2012); Whitney Biennial 2012; http://www.artfagcity.com.

Now that I’ve checked some major things off my to-do list–finish first year of school, find an apartment in New York, catch up on some sleep–I’m ready, and excited, to begin a summer full of museum and gallery visits!

I cheated just a little, and made a stop at the Whitney Biennial a few weeks ago while apartment-hunting in New York. I had to make an exception because the Biennial closed on May 27th, and I figured I wouldn’t have the energy to make it there on the day after my last comprehensive exam.

To sum it up, I have to say that I was slightly disappointed. My personal aesthetic is very formal, but I also like to be challenged by interesting concepts; in comparison to my experience at the 2006 Biennial, this exhibition seemed less appealing visually, and less cohesive. Maybe it was the lack of a title or theme this year that made the difference. Overall, there were many works that we would traditionally call craft (such as woven textiles), which is great, but many were commercially produced, taking the manual dexterity out of the equation. There were also many installation pieces that occupied an entire gallery with “stuff” that didn’t always tell an identifiable story. Finally, there were multiple artists that included 2-D framed pieces (prints, drawings, etc.) that seemed to be randomly  spread throughout the galleries.

That said, I was still impressed by a handful of artists that showed some inventive work. Ironically, they all happen to be photographers or video artists. I liked LaToya Ruby Frazer for her imagery and composition, Liz Deschenes for her approach to the photographic materials, and Moyra Davey for her concepts of time and communication.

Werner Herzog‘s Hearsay of the Soul was probably my favorite piece, combining 17th-century prints by Hercules Segers, music by Ernst Reijseger, and video of musicians in a five-screen projection. I have to be honest and say that I mostly sat down in the gallery because I was tired. The longer that I sat there, however, the more I enjoyed the piece because of the way that it stimulated my senses: the video contained graphic art along with human movement, constantly changing and surrounded by beautiful music.

Even with mixed reviews, I’m still glad I attended the exhibition, and I look forward to seeing how the careers of these artists transform over the coming few years.

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Not my photograph, but I can't help but share this from the SFMoMA Facebook page: "Try the latest art-inspired creation at our Blue Bottle Coffee Co. on the Rooftop!
This chocolate-y treat is based on Rineke Dijkstra's series of photographs at the beach. Caitlin and Leah (the ladies behind Blue Bottle's art-inspired edibles) use a lovely coaster printed with photographs of Ocean Beach, Baker Beach & Chrissie Field as the backdrop for their version of a bathing beauty: a cake tower made of a dark chocolate cake layered with whipped cream and topped with a ganache glaze. Mmmmm!"

I can’t believe it’s almost April! Although the spring season is still going strong, I can end my anxiety with plenty of good news: I will be attending the Delaware Public Humanities Institute for two weeks in June, followed by a summer internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York! And, to top that off, I just declared my major; the new background image should give you a hint–it’s photographs!! I’ve always had a strong interest in fine art photography, both creating it and studying it. Now I have the opportunity to delve even deeper into historic and contemporary processes, and focus my time on the conservation of photographic materials.

I was so excited to share my new decision with my conservator friends at the Legion of Honor and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during my spring break. Debra Evans and crew in the paper lab at the Legion kindly showed me their current projects, as well as storage, where the shelves were recently updated with earthquake-proof straps. The idea was really clever, and reminded me just how real the threat of earthquakes is on the west coast; I tend to forget, living in Philadelphia. Before leaving the museum, I stopped in to see The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900, which included some lovely photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Next stop: SFMOMA. I was able to say hi to a few of the people that I worked with in 2009 (I can’t believe it’s been almost three years!), then chat with Photograph Conservator Theresa Andrews about her day-to-day duties in the museum. I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of the artworks that she gets to handle, but also a bit relieved that I don’t have the monstrous task of re-designing a new lab space as part of the museum’s remodel.

There are currently three amazing photograph exhibitions on view at SFMoMA: Picturing Modernity, photographs from the permanent collection, with some beautiful albumen prints in pristine condition; Photography in Mexico, exploring the photographic traditions of Mexican artists, and other photographers working in Mexico. This was crazy because I wrote a research paper in college titled something like El Ojo de Mexico: Edward Weston, and this exhibition included every single image that I discussed in my paper! Finally, the Rineke Dijkstra Retrospective will be coming to MoMA this summer, but I think it will be interesting to see the show at two separate venues. Plus, Dijkstra’s images are very moving, and I love large scale color photography.

I’m so lucky that I get to visit photograph exhibitions as part of my job! Next on the list: Cindy Sherman Retrospective at MoMA and Francesca Woodman at Guggenheim.

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A colleague of mine at the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently returned from visiting Williamstown and shared with me these photos from MASS MoCA.


He was enjoying the current exhibition titled Memery: Imitation, Memory, and Internet Culture, when he took a closer look at this piece, only to see my face! Crazy–I had no idea that I was part of this work by Penelope Umbrico: People with Suns from Flickr!

It all started with Umbrico’s Suns from Flickr that I had helped to install in 2009 at SFMoMA. The piece is made up of hundreds of 4×6 chromogenic prints that were stuck to the wall in a grid pattern. To create it, Umbrico searched the term ‘sun’ in Flickr and appropriated a cropped version of each one she found, changing the title of the piece each time more suns were added to Flickr. After the completed installation at SFMoMA, I asked my supervisor, conservator Theresa Andrews, to take a photograph of me in front of the suns for my portfolio (as seen above). To make a long story short, the photo ended up on an advertisement for a talk I was giving and…voila, I was readily available for Umbrico to include in her latest work.

For People, Umrbico again scoured Flickr, as well as other search engines, this time for tags of her original piece. About 15 (including mine, not from Flickr) were then framed and mounted on the wall in a horizontal line. From reading various reviews of the show and interviews with the artist, it sounds like Umbrico wanted to feature people standing in from of Suns as if they were being photographed in front of an actual sunrise or sunset, facing forward and posing for the camera. Had I known this would happen, I probably would have at least taken off my badge…oh well, it’s still pretty exciting to have personally contributed to contemporary art.

I hope to make it to MA sometime to see the show before it closes next spring. If you happen to go, you’ll probably see me there!

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Sendak in Spring

Photo credit: The Chertoff Mural, prior to conservation. © 1961 by Maurice Sendak, all rights reserved

Once upon a time, there were two children who lived in a bedroom enchanted by a magical mural–the only mural ever painted by illustrator Maurice Sendak! Who wouldn’t be jealous of Nina and Larry Chertoff for having the opportunity to grow up in a place that surely fostered their imaginations in unspeakable ways. I’ve been meaning to write about this mural ever since The Rosenbach Museum and Library began advertising it’s conservation, in January, and I was reminded of it this morning both on NPR, and in the NYT. The whole project has been really exciting to experience as a Philadelphia resident, especially since the museum has organized so many outreach events to get the public interested in the mural’s conservation.

I’ll let you read a little more on the history of the mural, if you haven’t already, in the articles above. I’d like to elaborate on the conservation planning and treatment as discussed in a talk that I attended at the Rosenbach on February 23rd:

Milner and Carr is a firm that specializes in the documentation, analysis, condition assessment, testing, monitoring and treatment of historic buildings, monuments and sites. They were likely an obvious choice for the conservation of the Chertoff mural because not only are they highly respected in the field of architectural conservation, but they’re also located in Philadelphia, and they were able to carry out all aspects of the process–removal from the wall, stabilization, re-mounting and treatment.

Conservator Andrew Fearon was involved with the removal of the mural from the Chertoffs’ apartment in New York, subsequent transport to the Milner and Carr facility in Philadelphia, and, finally, to the Rosenbach exhibition space. Andrew did some research on the type of wall, and found that it was a non-load-bearing wall made of gypsteel that could easily be removed in two sections without causing structural problems to the rest of the apartment. Great news. There were a few obstacles, however, including the insecurity of the mural pigments, a gas pipe running through the wall, a service elevator barely big enough to fit each part of the object, and only 10 hrs to complete the entire removal and restoration of the original wall. Whew! Somehow, the folks at Milner and Carr managed to do it and arrive in Philadelphia with the mural intact, encased in a package of: polyethylene barrier, plaster, volara, honeycomb, and an aluminum frame.

Conservators at Milner and Carr immediately began building a new structure to house the mural, while conservator Mary McGinn consolidated the flaking paint. Once stable, and set up at its final location in the Rosenbach, the mural underwent its final stage of treatment by Cassie Myers. One problem she noticed, probably caused by the removal and handling, was a convex warp in the left-hand panel. Cassie was able to re-align both pieces using a reference photograph, then build up the gaps to create an even, unified surface. From there, Cassie could face the multiple forms of damage the mural had incurred throughout the years: melted paint from the radiator, water damage, housepainters’ layers covering parts of the mural, and a black magic marker repair performed by one of the children, among others. “Getting the panel right” was very important to Cassie, just as ethical issues are always at play in a conservation treatment; she was fortunate, though, to have the full support of the artist. Word has it that Maurice Sendak even made it to Philadelphia to complete the final touches of the mural himself.

The conservators’ specific techniques and the time it took to complete them are all documented in a video that accompanies the exhibition–now open!

Listen to an interview with Maurice Sendak on NPR’s All Things Considered, from February 1st.

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DC Trip – museums

After making my lab visits on Friday, the rest of my weekend was devoted to spending time with family, but I did squeeze in a couple more museums before heading back to Philly.

First stop, National Museum of the American Indian. I remember when the museum opened, in 2004, because I was taking a Native American Art course at CSUS and one of my classmates flew out for the opening day festivities. I was so excited to see what was inside, especially after getting a glimpse of the building, but I think my expectations were a little too high. The hand-crafted kayaks on the ground floor were very impressive, but it made me wonder if the other galleries would be filled with fine art or artifacts. In the first gallery, I did catch a glimpse of a Fritz Scholder painting, but I was overwhelmed by all of the interactive features and overload of information. The displays were very informative, but what I would expect from a museum of history, not of fine art.

The next gallery was the complete opposite–contemporary art. I thought, yes, this is exactly what I expected: white walls, square labels next to each object and conceptual artwork spread spaciously throughout the room. Not that every museum has to be exactly like this, but I felt comfortable and in a good place to experience the art. The exhibition was by Canadian/Native American artist Brian Jungen, and called Strange Comfort. It consisted of traditionally “Indian” objects, like totem poles, masks and blankets, made out of unconventional materials such as athletic equipment and plastic chairs. I thought the artist captured well the commoditized culture that is contemporary Native American life, and in a formally appealing way.

The other galleries on the top floor were similar to the first one I had experienced, and made me come to the realization that the mission of the museum is to portray a culture, not specifically fine art or historic artifacts. Had I gone in with a different set of expectations, I probably would’ve enjoyed the institution much more. My only question is: what do the artists think of the museum that houses their work?

On Sunday, Matthew and I stopped into the National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just talk about the building as if it were one museum. This was my first visit there, probably because it’s located a little north of the mall, and I usually don’t make it that far. I was pleasantly surprised by what the museum has to offer: something for all types of visitors. On the ground floor alone, there was an exhibition of folk art, contemporary portraits, 19th-century portraits, and a beautiful outdoor courtyard. From there, one could see American Art through time and portraits of the presents, modern and contemporary art, and even the historic architecture of the building. Of course, my favorite gallery was the contemporary art, but I still appreciated the range that the museum has to offer, and will definitely make this my first stop next time I’m in DC.

The special exhibition on the third floor was Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the ‘Running Fence’. I’ve seen photographs of the piece installed in California in the 70s, and I’ve always wished I could’ve been there to see it in person. I’m a big fan of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and believe in the power of installation art to reach new audiences outside the gallery/museum. Even for those inside the museum, the drawings and models were great to see. What a process the artists went through to reach the final product!

Last but not least, I have to mention the amazing educational opportunities at the museum: the Luce Center allows the visitor access to hundreds of artworks that would normally be in secured storage. There is also space for students/scholars to set up their computers and conduct research right next to the art. And if that wasn’t enough, the Lunder Conservation Center is just upstairs and available to anyone who is interested to check it out.

Unfortunately staff members were not on duty, but I still really enjoyed walking through the Lunder, taking a look at the labs, and watching the informational videos. This brought me back to the essay question at the Winterthur interview this year (paraphrased): Name two benefits and one drawback to allowing the public to view conservators at work. The question was great, because it really made me think about the educational mission of museums and how conservation is such a collaborative field. Standing in front of the glass doors at the Lunder, I thought about what it would be like to work in one of those labs; sure, the transparency is very honorable, but what happens when someone makes a mistake? We are all human. And doesn’t that create another layer of work, just keeping things organized and visually appealing. I will say that some labs were much less cluttered than others, but that’s a whole other blog topic!

Next time I travel to DC, I’ll be sure to schedule a visit with the conservators at the Lunder, to get an idea of how they feel about the public’s access to their workspace. It would also be interesting to visit the Walter’s Art Museum in Baltimore and see their conservation window, where “performances” by staff members are scheduled each day. Could this be a trend for museums in the future?

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