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The Virtues and Potential Vices of Face-Mounted Photographs

When you look at a photograph in the IMA galleries, do you ever notice the mounts? Maybe not consciously, but your viewing experience is significantly nuanced by the manner of presentation. This is why a great deal of effort and expense goes into preparing photographs for display on our walls. Photographs in the IMA’s collection are usually presented to the public mounted in mats and framed on the wall behind Plexiglas glazing. This is the same way that works on paper, such as prints and drawings, are displayed and this tradition, with some variation, has a history going back several hundred years. Mats serve to both physically support and visually augment the photograph by surrounding it with a serene expanse of paperboard that will focus your attention properly on the power of the photograph held in the center. A frame surrounds the mat and a front pane of glazing, such as glass or acrylic sheeting, offers formidable protection against a variety of ills, including rapid changes in temperature and humidity, air-borne pollutants, and fingerprints deposited by curious visitors. The very large, contemporary photographs are usually not matted, but set directly into frames that are equipped with “spacers” – strips of mat board, or small squared sections of  plastic or painted wood that hold the photograph a respectable distance away from the glazing. It is worrisome when a large photograph sags forward within its frame to touch the glazing; the emulsion (or media surface) could eventually conform to the rigid, textureless material, resulting in an altered sheen in the contact area. Or worse, the photograph could adhere to the glazing, and disengaging the two always carries a high risk of wounding the image surface. But the newest generation of contemporary photographs often dispense with frames altogether – they seem to float on the wall like magic windows into other worlds. These photographs are hovering courtesy of a relatively new presentation system called “face-mounting.”

Face-mounting permanently marries the photograph to the glazing with an interface of synthetic adhesive. Usually, a rigid backing material is similarly adhered to the verso of the photograph, creating a unified package that encases the work completely, supplying strength, support, and unfettered edges. There are visual advantages to this system that are very appealing to artists. With face-mounting, the colors of the photograph appear saturated and lush, and the images are appreciated by viewers as “crystal clear.” As air between a photograph and the glazing has been eliminated, there are no issues of multiple light-reflecting surfaces that can confuse the clear perception of the image. The absence of air can also be considered chemically beneficial to a photograph, both in relation to traditional gelatin emulsions with their cyan, yellow, and magenta dyes and the pigments and dyes deposited in digital printing. The oxygen component of the air has a destabilizing effect on organic molecules, and this includes cellulose (paper) proteins (gelatin) and some classes of colorants. In addition, humid air will cause the damaging reactions to proceed at an accelerated rate. Finally, face-mounted photographs are prevented from distorting, tearing, or suffering from casual accidents that would ordinarily mar its surface; it will never be directly handled again.

Face-Mounted photograph “Yellow Hallway” by James Casebere, 2001  (IMA2003.78). This is one of the earliest face-mounted photographs to enter the IMA collection. It has been shown in our galleries with some regularity, and it remains in excellent condition.

Face-Mounted photograph “Yellow Hallway” by James Casebere, 2001 (IMA2003.78). This is one of the earliest face-mounted photographs to enter the IMA collection. It has been shown in our galleries with some regularity, and it remains in excellent condition.

With these virtues in mind, it seems that the conservation community should welcome face-mounting with open arms. However, conservators are a cautious folk, and they never fully trust innovations that have not been observed and judged over significant periods of time. Their first concern is the obvious drawback of having a glazing material that cannot be removed. If the acrylic sheeting becomes scratched or clouded, it cannot simply be replaced – these problems become a permanent part of the artwork, compromising the prized aesthetic qualities expected from face-mounted images. The “protective” nature of glazing the front of the artwork is tempered by the fact that it is now also the aspect of highest vulnerability and it must be zealously protected from harm.

Secondly, there are many questions about the long-term aging behavior of face-mounted photographs that currently have no reliably researched answers within the conservation community:

  • How will the adhesives age in response to light and heat?
  • Will these adhesives eventually fail?
  • Will the different adhesives developed for face-mounting vary in their interactions with the aging images themselves?
  • How will all of the components that are in in close, inescapable contact (the acrylic sheet, adhesive, image media, paper [or other material] substrate, and various rigid backing materials) interact with each other over time?
  • Will close contact diminish or magnify the effects of damage-inducing catalysts, such as light and heat?
  • Does the drying time allowed for a printed image (an hour, a day, a week, a year) before it is face-mounted affect the overall stability of the package?
  • Based on aging characteristics, which digital processes are the most or least compatible with the face-mounting adhesives?
  • What are the future ramifications of this process for images made with older, less stable digital technologies that collectors decide to have face-mounted?

It could be that the answers to most of these questions would turn out to be encouraging. But the state of not knowing is uncomfortable for conservators. Fortunately, the IMA has received a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to fund a detailed condition survey of the state of preservation of all of its photographs, including a significant number of large sized, face-mounted contemporary works. Contracted Photograph Conservator Paul Messier is charged with conducting this survey, and he will also work with IMA scientist Greg D. Smith to launch a microfadeometry study of our Contemporary photograph collection. This analytical technique will help us to understand the fading propensities of digitally printed media in reaction to light, and we will have the opportunity to compare the results for traditionally framed photographs to the data for face-mounted photographs. The testing protocols will be somewhat challenged for the face-mounts, as readings must be taken through the acrylic glass and adhesive layer, but it is expected that this exploration will be a much needed first step in the conservator’s quest to understand the properties and potentials of face-mounted works of art.

Filed under: Conservation, Contemporary, Photography, The Collection

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