Conserving one of the oldest photographs in MoMA’s collection | CONSERVATION STORIES

Conserving one of the oldest photographs in MoMA’s collection | CONSERVATION STORIES

Lee Ann Daffner, Photography Conservator:
This is a daguerreotype plate that I’m going to be doing a rehousing for. The work was made in 1842 by a French photographer,
Girault de Prangey. So in 1839, two photographic processes were
announced. In England, it was the paper negative photography. In France, it was photography on metal. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre figured out
he could capture an image on this photosensitized silver plate. If Girault de Prangey was working in 1842, that means within like three years, you know,
he was into the process, he knew how to make a daguerreotype, and he
knew how to make big daguerreotypes, and then he traveled! He went to the most faraway lands that you
could possibly go from France and he created this incredible body of work. They were never exhibited in his lifetime
and in fact the plates were rediscovered in 1920, decades after his death, when his crumbling villa was purchased, and
the boxes were found in a loft space. Most people think of photography as a medium
of multiples, whereby you have a negative and you can print
off as many prints as desired. This is not always the case, especially with
the daguerreotype, which is a direct positive. It is a unique print. On a really well-made daguerreotype, you’ll
have a perfectly polished silver support and this extraordinarily fine amalgam of particles. Also, at that time they had superior optics,
and all of these combined yielded this infinite amount of detail that really rivals the resolution of our modern-day
imaging systems. The daguerreotype plate, itself, is incredibly
fragile. Unfortunately, the image literally just sits
on the surface of the silver plate, and can be very easily wiped away with a brush. This is plate number thirty-one, Rome, in the forum,
one of the ruins that are there, There’s two images on this plate. There’s the Arc de Septime Sévère, and
the lion of the capital, Lion du Capitale. The daguerreotype is like a polaroid, in that
it’s a direct positive. There’s no negative. The plate that we’re looking at was the
plate that was in the camera. and the thing that Girault de Prangey did
is he designed a camera that he could rotate the plate in the camera. He would expose half of the plate by covering
it, and then he would rotate the plate and then
expose the other half. It’s also a large plate. The camera that this thing would have been
in was easily almost the size of this table. I mean, it was really, really big, and everything
had to be done by hand. The polishing of the plate had to be done
by hand, the sensitizing, again, placing in the camera, exposure and then development. One of the issues with daguerreotypes is that
they are silver, and just like our silver jewelry and our cutlery,
they’re going to tarnish. Originally, these plates were housed in boxes
that had little slots, and that’s probably why you see the tarnish
at the bottom and at the top. This is an example of, you know, what happens
to a daguerreotype plate when it’s exposed to the air. There’s sulfur in the air. There’s all kinds of pollution, especially
in this urban environment that we live in. We’re not going to treat the tarnish, it
doesn’t really interfere with the image. I’m afraid that if we tried to reduce this, we might lose some of the intensity of the
image, and the chemistry of the surface is so complicated, the treatments that we do will have long-term
effects. If the work is somehow damaged, either by
accident or in conservation, there is no going back. This fact informs all of our treatment decisions. Sulfur and silver have a tremendous affinity
for each other. So, if there’s any sulfur around your silver,
they’re going to want to bond together. Preservation is paramount for these plates, and we are going to upgrade this plate package
so that it remains as stable and unreactive as possible. I’m going to cut the tapes that are around
the plate, take the cover glass off, and then very carefully measure. Before I re-bind it, I will make sure it looks,
you know, that we remove all the dust and debris, but the goal today is really just to, to measure. Twenty-four centimeters exactly. Here’s the wooden spacers which were… I don’t know when these date from, maybe
the 1970’s, maybe, maybe later than that, but we definitely
don’t want wood next to our plate, because there’s lots of sulfur-containing
materials there. And it’s also kind of rough. And this was right on the plate, so that’s really unacceptable. So the measurements are going to be sent to
fabricators. One fabricator to make a metal frame, and
the other fabricator is going to be cover glass, both for the recto and the verso. I will get those materials ordered and I think
maybe in two weeks, maybe less, we’ll have the, the frame and the glass. Today is a big day. We’re going to re-bind this daguerreotype. It’s an important procedure, because, um, once we bind this plate in its new materials, we’d like to be able to leave it there as
long as possible. Our choice of materials for this new re-housing
is based on what we know to be chemically stable materials. This tray that I’m going to make is going
to hold the daguerreotype within its new enclosure. And it’s made out of polyester, which is
also an inert material. It’s kind of like a clamp system that really
sort of holds the plate in place. The next step is a very interesting refinement
that was researched and developed by our colleagues up at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art in the photo conservation lab. The system that they came up with uses an
aluminum, water-cut spacer, that keeps the glass off of the surface. This is nice because all the edges of the
plate will be visible, There’s a lot of information on the edges
there. In addition to this spacer, is the use of
borosilicate glass. It’s an incredibly stable material, and
is very clear. I’m going to take our plate out, I’m going to nestle them inside this aluminum
spacer on top of the glass, and then I’ll take the second glass and
put it on top, and I’m going to clip the edges to hold
everything in place. There we are. Much safer to handle. The framer can make a nice, custom frame that
this can pop into, and it can be shown on the wall. It was very important that if this work was
going to go on view in the exhibition in the reopening, that we re-house it properly. There’s a real art and science to the cleaning
because you have to not only know the systems, and the materials, and the types of deterioration, but you need to know when to stop, because
you can definitely over-clean something. Conservators must understand the materials,
and when you understand the materials to more or less degree, you have an appreciation for the story that
the materials are going to tell you. It’s one of the privileges of being a conservator
is that we, I think we get the most intimate experience with the object.

8 thoughts on “Conserving one of the oldest photographs in MoMA’s collection | CONSERVATION STORIES

  1. This is oldest daguerreotype from 1839 Kynลพvart castle. Daguerreotype from Kynzvart is on UNESCO list.

  2. ๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•๐Ÿ’ž๐Ÿ’•

  3. I love looking at early photographs! Though I love the paintings of the period, photography shows the actual person. Itโ€™s a moment in time that will never happen again but that moment is somewhat preserved.

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