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Lost in Reintegration?

Different Approaches to Loss in Photographs and Photographic Postcards
Magdalena Grenda

Résumés

Cet article décrit les différentes approches de la réintégration de l’image et la question des lacunes des photographies et des cartes postales photographiques, selon le contexte de leur utilisation, les attentes du propriétaire et le vouloir de l’artiste. On présente les divers exemples pour montrer la complexité des problèmes de conservation concernant le matériau généralement qualifié de "photographie". La diversité de solutions et décisions révèle qu’il y a de nombreuses facteurs à considérer mais il n’y a pas de réponses simples quant aux décisions dans l'exercice du travail.

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Texte intégral

I would like to thank Piotr Matosek for sharing his experience and documentation concerning the treatment of photographic albums from the National Digital Archives of Poland described as the third treatment case in this article.

Introduction

  • 1 MUÑOZ-VIÑAS, S., Contemporary theory of conservation, Oxon, New York, Routledge, 2011, p. 204
  • 2 “There is no easy answer to what constitutes meaningful loss or disfigurement. This in turn, is bec (...)

1In recent years, art conservators have seen contemporary re-evaluations of the art conservation theory and methodology. Salvador Muñoz Viñas described contemporary ethics as “essentially negotiatory and subject-oriented, and as a consequence, highly adaptive”1.  His writings bring us an inevitable conclusion that every treatment is an interpretation. A similar notion was well described in Barbara Appelbaum’s Conservation Treatment Methodology2.

  • 3 MUÑOZ-VIÑAS, S., Contemporary theory of conservation, Oxon, New York, Routledge, 2011, p. 176, see (...)
  • 4 APPELBAUM, B., Conservation Treatment Methodology, Lexington KY, 2014, p. 115

2Conservation has been described as a process enabling  custodians of collections to express their values and beliefs3; and the values themselves- are rather elusive and evolving notions4.

3There actually should not be anything disgraceful in admitting that anything the conservator does is the matter of his/her choice, and that there must be other possibilities in approaching the treatment. The most important thing is to consider the particular choices and to clearly define the end goal of the chosen treatment.

  • 5 Ibidem, p. 177-181

4Drawing from the most recent conservation theory and methodology publications, the author would like to illustrate different solutions for paper-based artifacts which could be defined as “value-led conservation”5.

5This article offers descriptions of four treatments and presents four different approaches to various types of collections. The treatment decisions were made in close cooperation with the custodians and owners of the collections and in one case with the artist who created the artwork. The author of this paper found that the problem of image loss raised a diversity of issues and values requiring reflection and analysis.  Further, these issues and values illustrate that the notion of authenticity and appropriateness in conservation is flexible and extensive.

Case 1: Private Owner, Private Collection; The Fulfillment of Owning a Collection

6The treatment of objects in private collections, whether they hold sentimental value or simply please the owner, can be a source of many interesting observations. At the same time the expectations and the viewpoint of an individual collector may be far removed from what the conservator is used to. The foundation of effective cooperation between a conservator and a collector is found in precisely defining the needs and goals of  the treatment.  There should be a mutual understanding of the values the owner wants to preserve and enhance. To achieve such mutual understanding, the collector  should thoroughly discuss and understand the basic concepts used by the conservator. The author of this paper encountered a situation in which cooperation with a private collector became uneasy due to such a misunderstanding.  The misunderstanding,  which was discovered after the first series of treatments, occured because each party understood the idea of infilling the areas of loss somewhat differently.

7A collection of several photographic postcards with some writing in ink on the verso (the verso is not shown in the photographs) was brought in for treatment. The collector desired the object to have a “like-new“ or “unused” appearance. He requested a thorough restoration in order to remove all signs of deterioration, filling in the areas of loss and adding detailed reconstructive retouch. One of the issues the conservator had to face was to recognise and manage the owner’s expectations and to outline what is realistically achievable with this treatment.

8The photographic postcards showed different types of damage. Some of them had staining and discolouration that were either impossible to remove, or risked further damage in an attempt to remove them, e.g. abrasions to the emulsion layer or bleeding of ink writing on the verso. The collector seemed to have understood and tolerated these limitations on the treatment.

9As it sometimes happens, a client is not always happy with the end result of a conservation treatment, but what was surprising here, was the reason which caused his disappoitment. The first postcard to undergo treatment had slightly rounded corners that seemed to be from its original design. The corners were heavily abraded and weakened and for that reason they were reinforced with methylcellulose and supported with light Japanese tissue. The rough edges at the corners were also filled in with Japanese tissue. After drying the object under pressure, the excess of the Japanese tissue was trimmed along the slightly rounded shape of the corners. The owner complained that the treatment was unfinished. It turned out that the client understood the term “infilling the losses” differently than what the conservator meant by it. The conversation with the owner revealed that he had imagined the infills to have right angle corners. (fig. 1 and 2). Once the conservator understood why the client was dissapointed, the following treatments were adjusted, and right angled corners were used on the other photo postcards.

Fig.1 Photographic postcard from the private collection, 1935

Fig.1 Photographic postcard from the private collection, 1935

Before treatment.

Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda

Fig. 2 Photographic postcard from the private collection, 1935  

Fig. 2 Photographic postcard from the private collection, 1935  

After treatment; filled in areas of loss as requested by the collector.

Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda

  • 6 The problem of communication between the conservator and the custodian  is well described in Appelb (...)

10In this case the “mistake” was actually a miscommunication6. This misunderstanding was minor and relatively easy to correct because it only involved reshaping the infills.  However,  the situation itself demonstrated that differences in the interpretation of the treatment proposal may show up quite unexpectedly for the conservator. In some cases, such miscomunication may heavily affect both the course of treatment and the final appearance of the object.

11Moreover, this example clearly showed how differently the collector defined the same values, which the conservator was agreeable to preserve. The owner identified the aspect of authenticity with his individual concept of “ideal state”, which he assumed to be obvious and similar for the conservator.  Even though the conservator felt that cutting the right angle corners would falsify to some extent the original character of the object, and disagreed with the collector’s vision of the treatment, she went along with the his request because the solution didn’t conflict with her sense of ethics, only aesthetics. The justification for this solution was its reversibility. These infills could be reshaped at any time, so the limits of the treatment proved to be adjustable in this case.

Case 2: Private Owner, Public Collection; Archaeological Approach.

12Private owners do not always advocate for the “newness value” or the thorough restoration to bring an object to a “like new”condition. At times they might be even more restrictive than an average museum curator in their viewpoint of conservation treatment.

13Photographs deposited in the Fundacja Muzyka Odnaleziona (Rediscovered Music Foundation) are a part of the collection gathered by ethnographers during their nationwide and international research concerning rural music in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus.  The Foundation is responsible for the instruments, and audio and video recordings of the ethnographer Andrzej Bieńkowski, and houses photographs from  reasearch and  from collections of various musicians.

14Many of these old photographs showed signs of heavy use. They were collected mostly during field trips and often were torn out of albums by previous owners. Besides grime, dust, rust and insect stains, the paper support of most of these photographs was very poor, showing various stages of delamination.  The edges were rough and full of tears and losses. The owners implemented a program of digitisation of the whole collection as they wanted to provide easy and open access to these images online. Nevertheless, they felt that leaving the actual photographs untreated may be risky for the future use of these objects. The collection consists of over 3,500 photographic prints which are kept in a private apartment. The owners demonstrated an interesting approach to the idea of stabilising these photographic prints. They wanted to secure only the the irregular losses along the edges of the photographs. They asked the conservator to focus only on the irregular and rough edges which in their opinion would tend to deepen and cause further damage.  They opted to leave other edges untreated because in their opinion these areas would not pose the same risk. They did not necessarily care to keep the original shape of the print, instead the idea was to mitigate the risk created by rough edges and prevent any further tears or loss (fig. 3 and 4). In this case, any retouch was out of the question. The custodians’ desire to retain a great sense of authenticity and truth in the photographs was quite extraordinary and gave an interesting example of another version of an “archaeological approach” to the compensation of loss. The treatment required numerous consultations in order to define to what extent the losses should be filled in. There could be a slight difference between the solution that was “just right” and the one that was already “too much”. The conservation treatment had to be adjusted to the owners’ sense of neutrality, which guaranteed the preservation of historic and research values. They were not very keen on focusing on the aesthetic value of the object. They were actually enthusiasts of the photographs’ historic value, therefore their pursuit for keeping the object’s history “frozen” may be classified as an aspiration to preserve specific aesthetics.

Fig. 3 The photography from the collection of Fundacja Muzyka Odnaleziona, not dated

Fig. 3  The photography from the collection of Fundacja Muzyka Odnaleziona, not dated

Before treatment.

Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda

Fig. 4 The photography from the collection of Fundacja Muzyka Odnaleziona, not dated

Fig. 4 The photography from the collection of Fundacja Muzyka Odnaleziona, not dated

 After treatment.

Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda

Case 3: Public Owner, Public Collection; Finding a Way to Bring the Images to the Public

15In 2012 the National Digital Archives (NAC) in Poland sent a group of photographic albums from their collection for conservation treatment. The photographic albums needed a thorough restoration. The owner, NAC, wanted to digitise both sides of each photographic print from these albums, while they were in treatment. The idea was that the conservator, Piotr Matosek, would remove the photographs from the albums’ pages for scanning, and after scanning both sides of the photographs remount them using V-hinges. Before this conservation effort began, access to the photographs was greatly limited.  The albums’ structural condition was poor and handling them could cause more damage. The albums’ leaves were brittle, abraded and torn, particularly along the joints and edges. The photographs were also torn and stained, and glued directly onto the album pages. Some of the photographs were severely damaged, having been partially torn out and re-attached once before (fig. 5).

Fig. 5 The album from National Digital Archives, first half of 20th century

Fig. 5 The album from National Digital Archives, first half of 20th century

Before treatment.

Photo credit: Piotr Matosek

16The conservator filled in the top part of the torn photograph with a few layers of Japanese Kozo paper of appropriate weight with wheat starch paste. He first attempted to create an infill from a sheet of silver safe paper but the end result was unsatisfying. Despite the expected research value of the objects, aesthetics prevailed in the final choice of a solution. The infills were cut to bring the format of the prints back to their rectangular shape (fig. 6 and 7).

Fig. 6 The album from National Digital Archives, first half of 20th century

Fig. 6 The album from National Digital Archives, first half of 20th century

After treatment.

Photo credit: Piotr Matosek.

Fig. 7 The album from National Digital Archives, first half of 20th century

Fig. 7 The album from National Digital Archives, first half of 20th century

After treatment- detail

Photo credit: Piotr Matosek.

17Unlike the albums’ pages, the photographs were not in-painted.  The conservator decided to retouch only the infills on the photographic albums’ pages. These infilled pages were in-painted using tratteggio technique, aiming at making the retouch easily detectable (fig. 8).

Fig. 8 The album from National Digital Archives

Fig. 8 The album from National Digital Archives

After treatment- detail.

Photo credit: Piotr Matosek

18Considering the research value of this collection, the owner, (NAC), and the conservator agreed on “the archaeological approach” to its treatment. However, they were still interested in pursuing some aesthetic values, so the final outcome is somewhat mixed.

Case 4: The Artist and her Work of Art: Releasing the image by Local Reconstruction

19The last case described in this article is the work of Teresa Gierzyńska, exhibited at Dotyk/Touch exhibition in Pola Magnetyczne Gallery, in Warsaw, Poland. Pola Magnetyczne is a private gallery, owned by a couple of art historians-curators and is housed in their own apartment. The owners focus on the promotion of Polish art from the second half of 20th century. The intimate nature of this gallery is a puzzling element for visitors, who inevitably have to mingle with the owners and their private guests while viewing the exhibition. The artists whose works are exhibited in the gallery are often friends of the gallery owners. This creates a feeling of stepping into somebody’s private life when visiting the space.

20In 2014 the curators asked the conservator for help in preparing an exhibition of artworks by Teresa Gierzyńska. The conservator was supposed to mount the artworks, mostly photographs and photographic collages, before framing, to give them a floating appearance. Some of the works needed treatment due to surface dirt and tears. At the start of the project, the conservator introduced the the artist to the process of conservation. The conservator and the artist had to create a decision workflow concerning possible solutions and changes, and then confirm some of these decisions with the curators. An interesting moment came when the artist was to show some works she hadn’t seen at for a long time. The conservator could observe a process of self-reflection as the artist was viewing her works in a fresh, unbiased way. The decisions were a cycle of consultations and discussions on what should be changed and why. From the conservator’s point of view it was a very convenient situation, because the artist herself was the most appropriate person to make decisions. However, her decisions were not always in agreement with the curators’ expectations. The artist more readily accepted stains and marks that were not original to the object, but were created due to the passage of time and deterioration. She embraced those stains as an integral part of the objects’ artistic expression. In those moments, the conservator played the role of a negotiator between the artist and the curators, even though there were no serious problems, and both sides were willing to consider various solutions.

21The photographs were developed by the artist herself and treated in her own technique of aniline tinting and stamping with the addition of handwriting. In one of the photographs there was a disturbing loss in the emulsion and the upper layer of the support. Without the artist’s presence, the conservator would have to interpret the area of loss alone. The eye-shaped discontinuity looked ambiguous and was drawing attention away from the main image; but without the artist’s confirmation the conservator was unsure of the role or the origin of the loss (fig. 9 and 11).

Fig. 9 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976

Fig. 9 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976

Before treatment.

Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda

22Teresa Gierzyńska made a clear-cut decision to fully restore the loss. The conservator made tratteggio retouch (ill. 10 and 12).

Fig. 10 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976

Fig. 10 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976

After treatment.

Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda

Fig.11 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976

Fig.11 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976

Before treatment- detail.

Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda.

Fig. 12 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976

Fig. 12 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976

After treatment - detail.

Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda.

23In the case of other artwork, the artist asked the conservator to replace the Japanese tissue which was attached to the section of the artwork as “a curtain”. The original piece of tissue was torn and darkened because of dust and grime. If not for the artist’s preference, the conservator would rather treat the original material than remove it in order to attach a new piece of Japanese tissue.

24The chance to work with the artist gave the conservator a rare opportunity to safely decide on the values which could be preserved.  Sometimes it could result in changing the age value when removing the marks of use or changing particular parts of artwork to new ones. This unique cooperation enabled the preservation of aesthetic authenticity and art value, which are the crucial factor when it comes to the artistic object. On the other hand, the conservator sensed that the artist re-interpreted her work in a new way, which in turn led to the conclusion that authenticity may have in some cases evolving character.

Conclusions

  • 7 MATERA, F., On Time and the Modalities in Conservation, in Ethics and Critical Thinking in Conserva (...)

25The four cases described in this paper, list different relationships between owners or custodians of collections and their respective collections. Their approach to the conservation treatment solutions vary according to the sense of “truth” and “authenticity” they attribute to the art object. Understanding these elusive and disputable7 notions can surprise both the conservator and the custodian. For the private owner of a private collection, the objects were most desirable when their appearance was in an imagined “ideal state”, deprived of any signs of use or deterioration. In that case, the historic value was not as essential. But for the ethnographer, who was also the researcher, the focus was mainly on research and historic value of the collection. One could also assign to him the interest in the sentimental aspect of the collection, as he personally knew the people that are in the photographs. For him the authenticity is found in the documentary value of the collection, including the loss and damage which happened to those objects. On the other hand, the institution which owned the public collection, in addition to the research value of those objects, was hardly indifferent to their aesthetic value. And in the case of the artist, who made her own decisions about the treatment of her works, the truth emerged as a process of re-evaluation, probably a unique phenomenon. It is possible that at different times and under different circumstances she could have made other decisions, as at that moment the artist was at another stage of interpretation of her own works.

26The factors which affect the final conservation treatment are numerous. Unfortunately, the conservator does not always have the chance to meet the creator of the artwork in person to talk about his/her technique and aesthetic choices, which leaves the responsibility for decision making to the conservator. What a conservator does is not always acknowledged or understood either. The conservator is not always a good moderator of values and sometimes is lacking as a communicator. Clients sometimes ask for solutions the conservator would rather not execute because they clash with his vision of what is appropriate or ethical in the field of art conservation.

27The mixture of values in every object is a “complex tangle”, as Muñoz-Viñas called it, and it depends mostly on the owner or custodian of the collection whose values are revealed in the object’s tangled image. In addition, various people may notice different values in the same object, because as in the case of beauty (and according to Muñoz-Viñas, as in the case of falsehood), the principles are in the eye of the beholder. What does it mean to the conservator? Perhaps that relativity of conservation treatment is only limited by the sense of inconsistency with the conservator’s conscience.

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Notes

1 MUÑOZ-VIÑAS, S., Contemporary theory of conservation, Oxon, New York, Routledge, 2011, p. 204

2 “There is no easy answer to what constitutes meaningful loss or disfigurement. This in turn, is because there is no simple definition of the desired state of the object. Every treatment represents an attempt to bring an object to a specific previous state, but the choice of that state is not a foregone conclusion. Ergo, any treatment is an interpretation”, in: APPELBAUM, B., Conservation Treatment Methodology, Lexington KY, 2014, p.6; see also WHEELER, G., Conservation takes a reflective turn in Ethics and Critical Thinking in Conservation, edited by Pamela Hatchfield,  American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Washington, 2013, p.141-146

3 MUÑOZ-VIÑAS, S., Contemporary theory of conservation, Oxon, New York, Routledge, 2011, p. 176, see also MATERA, F., On Time and the Modalities in Conservation, in Ethics and Critical Thinking in Conservation, edited by Pamela Hatchfield,  American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Washington, 2013, p. 91-110; p. 93. In the same paper Matera writes that “Conservation is about creative change because it understands and reconciles change responsive to the historic context”, p. 95.

4 APPELBAUM, B., Conservation Treatment Methodology, Lexington KY, 2014, p. 115

5 Ibidem, p. 177-181

6 The problem of communication between the conservator and the custodian  is well described in Appelbaum’s „Methodology“: APPELBAUM, B., Conservation Treatment Methodology, Lexington KY, 2014, p. 173- 193 and elsewhere in the book

7 MATERA, F., On Time and the Modalities in Conservation, in Ethics and Critical Thinking in Conservation, edited by Pamela Hatchfield,  American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Washington, 2013, p. 91-110; p. 99, see also APPELBAUM, B., Conservation Treatment Methodology, Lexington KY, 2014, p. 255-256, where the author describes the possible tensions between the notions of truth and authenticity.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig.1 Photographic postcard from the private collection, 1935
Légende Before treatment.
Crédits Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 904k
Titre Fig. 2 Photographic postcard from the private collection, 1935  
Légende After treatment; filled in areas of loss as requested by the collector.
Crédits Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 844k
Titre Fig. 3 The photography from the collection of Fundacja Muzyka Odnaleziona, not dated
Légende Before treatment.
Crédits Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 328k
Titre Fig. 4 The photography from the collection of Fundacja Muzyka Odnaleziona, not dated
Légende  After treatment.
Crédits Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 424k
Titre Fig. 5 The album from National Digital Archives, first half of 20th century
Légende Before treatment.
Crédits Photo credit: Piotr Matosek
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 448k
Titre Fig. 6 The album from National Digital Archives, first half of 20th century
Légende After treatment.
Crédits Photo credit: Piotr Matosek.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 396k
Titre Fig. 7 The album from National Digital Archives, first half of 20th century
Légende After treatment- detail
Crédits Photo credit: Piotr Matosek.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 816k
Titre Fig. 8 The album from National Digital Archives
Légende After treatment- detail.
Crédits Photo credit: Piotr Matosek
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 712k
Titre Fig. 9 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976
Légende Before treatment.
Crédits Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 788k
Titre Fig. 10 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976
Légende After treatment.
Crédits Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 632k
Titre Fig.11 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976
Légende Before treatment- detail.
Crédits Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 840k
Titre Fig. 12 Czy takie były siostry… by Teresa Gierzyńska, 1976
Légende After treatment - detail.
Crédits Photo credit: Magdalena Grenda.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4556/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 465k
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Référence électronique

Magdalena Grenda, « Lost in Reintegration? », CeROArt [En ligne], 10 | 2015, mis en ligne le 25 mars 2015, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL : http://ceroart.revues.org/4556

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Auteur

Magdalena Grenda

Magdalena Grenda is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland, where she studied at the Department of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art. She is a paper conservator and restorer currently employed at the Warsaw Rising Museum.

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Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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