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New exhibition at the Art Institute pulls back the veil on the important work of photo conservationists at the museum. The goal: to help us see the invaluable photographs on exhibition in a whole new light.

By Isaac Jacobs

Sylvie Pénichon, head of Photograph Conservation, gently rolls a swab over the surface of photograph to remove grime embedded in its emulsion (photo by James Iska. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago).

From the Spring 2019 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

When a person visits an art museum and sees a photograph on exhibit, they often view it with an open mind, with the mindset or expectation that there is indeed a story to tell. They open themselves up to that story, embracing the perspective of an audience. And while opening one’s self to the story often expands one's perspective, what it also often does in the process is elude a real understanding of the nature of the object at hand, the delicate, vulnerable, flawed object conveying that story they open themselves up to. An exhibition that launched in the fall at the Art Institute of Chicago explores the fragility of photographs and just what it takes to preserve the stories they tell.

Ubiquitous, photos are multifarious and emanate from a wealth of sources. Conservation of the medium is a science that incorporates a wide variety of strategies and a disparate range of tools and resources. For an institution the size of the Art Institute, those strategies and that range of tools are nearly as expansive as the collection they serve. The new exhibition, Conserving Photographs, invites visitors to see photographs with a conservator’s eye, view them afresh and gain insight into the perspective of a professional conservator, like those in the institute’s Department of Conservation and Science.

This exhibition explores the many facets of the work they undertake in their daily care of the museum’s holdings, from connoisseurship and material science to precise hand skills.

Organized by Sylvie Pénichon, head of Photograph Conservation at the Art Institute, the new exhibition had one distinct challenge in presenting these techniques: help us to look beyond the story they tell for a moment to see museum-quality photographs for what they are: delicate, vulnerable objects each with a shelf life that is racing to its expiration date.

As Pénichon pointed out, it wasn’t the easiest of things to do. “First, I had to decide how I was going to describe the work we do and the areas of expertise a conservator must possess,” she explained. “I identified three areas: connoisseurship, preventive conservation, and conservation treatment, with material science incorporated in all three. Then, perhaps the most difficult part was to select the works in the exhibition as I had to look at the collection with a different eye than I usually do. I wanted to show works that were engaging at the same time they illustrated the points I wanted to make.”

Avoiding conservation jargon in the accompanying text of the exhibition was also one of Pénichon’s goals.

"My intention is to bring our visitors to look at the photographs beyond the image they carry and see them as objects, the way a conservator does. There are many levels of information in the labels and texts of the exhibition; I highlighted the visual clues we use to determine the needs of the object or the interventive action to take in the labels while still giving some information about the image. Visitors are usually very curious about what goes on behind the scenes; this exhibition gives them a small glimpse of that, if they want to follow its narrative. One could as well just enjoy the selection of photographs (some iconic ones) from our rich collection without getting into the conservation part, I think.”

Conserving Photographs features nearly 30 photographs meticulously culled from the museum’s photography collection, comprised of almost 24,000 objects, from early daguerreotypes to contemporary digital prints as well as time-based media. And the objective, as Pénichon points out, is “to take our visitor’s gaze beyond the image content alone and bring it closer to the objects, the way a conservator approaches a work of art.”

To that end, the exhibition employs microphotographs on display to reveal characteristic features of photographic processes; artificially aged samples in the exhibition demonstrate the effects of light on dyes; scientific instruments on display help to identify photographic components and date materials, color changes and damage exhibited by the photographs. In some instances, the exhibition presents side-by-side copies of the same image, revealing just how prints age, along with the benefits of proper storage conditions and the importance of conservation efforts.

Finally, several examples of conservation treatments highlight the collaborative aspect of repairing or stabilizing works of art, which increasingly relies on scientific research as well as a growing and evolving understanding of artistic intent.

All of these elements show just how committed the Art Institute has been from early on not only to collect and display photography but also to preserve them to the highest standards in the field, says Pénichon, and moreover the techniques explored in this exhibition may also show viewers something salient about the very nature of the works themselves. “From the technical point of view, visitors might also get an appreciation of the difficulties photographers, especially in the 19th century, had to overcome or how specific choices of materials artists make tell us about their practice and intent.”Conserving Photographs effectively pulls back the veil, not only on the conservation process, but also the photographic process. Taking the visitor’s eye beyond the image to the “materiality of the object,” Pénichon says, showing the impact of cold storage on color photographs, or how conservators use science to guide preservation practice takes them beyond the message the photograph communicates to reveal the fragility and perhaps therefore something of the value of the object.

Make no mistake, Pénichon certainly believes in the importance of the message inherent in photographs in the Art Institute’s massive collection, yet and still, if she has her way, visitors to this enlightening new exhibition will never see a museum photograph in quite the same light ever again.