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City of Light meets the Circle City

Photo of Zadig Perrot by Eric Lubrick

Photo of Zadig Perrot by Eric Lubrick

Recently, 14-year-old Zadig Perrot, from Paris, France, spent two weeks at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. During his first week he attended the Social Photography summer camp for teens where he learned how to use a camera and Photoshop. You can see some of his photos in the slideshow below.

Zadig’s photos and the works of other Summer Camps participants are on view in the Community Gallery on the first floor of the IMA through August 8.

During his second week at the IMA, Zadig spent his time with the Interpretation, Media and Evaluation department. He helped them with some of their tasks and created this video to showcase what the department does at the IMA.

Thanks for your work, Zadig! We hope you enjoyed your visit with us as much as we enjoyed hosting you!

 

Filed under: Art, Audience Engagement, Education, Guest Bloggers, IMA Staff, Photography

 

Burn Out or Fade Away

Today's Guest Bloggers are Gregory Dale Smith, Ph.D., the IMA's Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist, and Michael Columbia, Ph.D., Sabbatical Leave Research Fellow - IPFW

It is an uncomfortable truth that in showing you an artwork in a museum, we are potentially destroying it.  As a conservation professional, it feels wrong to admit that, but it is true.  Every photon, or packet of radiant energy, that strikes the surface of an art object has the potential to do damage, and we most often see that as a negative change in the artwork’s aesthetics: darkening, fading, yellowing, chalking, crosslinking, etc.  It’s an unstoppable phenomenon, but one that proceeds at a variety of rates.  Certainly color change is one of the most notable alterations that light can cause in an artwork, and so we must dole out the expected lifetime of an object using an informed and rational approach.  Conservators and collections managers go to great pains to protect artwork by limiting its exposure to light.  This can take the form of reducing light intensity, restricting its spectral output, or limiting the duration of an exhibition.  These stewards of the collection get additional insight and data from scientists who study the fading behavior of artists’ materials.

For the past several months the IMA has been conducting a condition survey of its photograph collection, over 800 objects that span the history of the medium.  This program is sponsored by a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a wing of the federal government that supports museum and conservation activities.  In addition to the inventory and conservation assessment of each artwork, the grant has also funded a study of the lightfastness of the contemporary color photographs in the collection using a technique called microfade testing (MFT), or microfadeometry.  The goal of the study is to determine the susceptibility to color change for the highest priority color photographs in the collection and to determine patterns of lightfastness among the many photographic processes.  This data in turn informs our exhibition, loan, and lighting guidelines for the collection.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Watercolor paint outs after artificial light aging.

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Filed under: Conservation, Photography, The Collection

 

A Tale of Two Weegees

As I have written about in previous posts (here, here, here, and here), the IMA is very fortunate to have photograph conservator Paul Messier on site with us to conduct a conservation condition survey of all of our collection photographs. This initiative was made possible through a generous grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) in recognition of IMA’s significant holdings of historic and contemporary photographs. With the information gained from this survey, the IMA hopes to design a program of optimal care that will allow us to responsibly study and exhibit our photographs within the highest standard of preservation.

Paul has recently surveyed our collection of Weegee photographs, which came to the IMA in 2009. Weegee is a pseudonym for Arthur Fellig, who immigrated with his family at the age of 10 to New York from the Ukraine in 1909. He began his work in photography as a darkroom assistant for Acme Newspictures (which became United Press International Photos) before striking out on his own as a freelance photographer, concentrating on crime photography. He would often arrive at crime scenes before the first responders, which led to a joking reputation for prescience. This earned him the nickname of “ouija” (from the future-predicting board game), which was phonetically reinterpreted as “Weegee.” Weegee became well-known as a hard-boiled, scruffy, street-smart individual. He was also a natural self-promoter, who began signing his work “Weegee the Famous.” He is considered one of the first street photographers, as opposed to the traditional studio photographer who worked with staged compositions and tightly controlled content. His approach paved the way for the work of later notable photographers, such as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. Weegee developed and printed his own photographs, and his work was published in all of the prominent New York City newspapers. He became widely known for his gritty, unvarnished views of crime, but perhaps he is best appreciated today for his capture of NYC life in high and low places—glimpses of ordinary moments frozen into significance as unselfconscious documents of time and place.

Paul called my attention to two particular photographs that struck him as singular, both of which are portraits of Weegee: one is a gelatin-silver print by photographer Larry Block and the other is a color Polaroid self-portrait by Weegee. These images, while very different from each other, are praiseworthy for their success within their respective techniques in conveying a strong sense of personality. They are also beautifully rendered, aptly utilizing the aesthetic parameters of the materials servicing these processes.

Larry Block “Portrait of Weegee,” undated. Gelatin Silver Print.Caroline Marmon Fesler Fund, Gift of the Alliance of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Roger G. Wolcott Fund, Nancy Foxwell Neuberger Acquisition Endowment Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore P. Van Vorhees Art Fund, Cecil F. Head Art Fund, James V. Sweetser Fund. 2009.272.

Larry Block “Portrait of Weegee,” undated. Gelatin Silver Print.Caroline Marmon Fesler Fund, Gift of the Alliance of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Roger G. Wolcott Fund, Nancy Foxwell Neuberger Acquisition Endowment Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore P. Van Vorhees Art Fund, Cecil F. Head Art Fund, James V. Sweetser Fund. 2009.272.

The undated portrait of Weegee by Larry Block is a study of the photographer in a pensive moment, fueled by a focused intensity. He is slouched informally, yet commands great presence; the setting is casual but dramatically rendered. This is clearly an individual that deserves our attention even as he ignores the camera, seemingly alone with his thoughts and his trademark cigar. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Conservation, Photography, The Collection

 

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.

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Filed under: Conservation, Contemporary, Photography, The Collection

 

A Discussion of Orotones

In February of 2012, the Indianapolis Museum of Art mounted a works on paper exhibition created by IMA Prints, Drawings & Photographs Curator Marty Krause entitled “Looking West.” This exhibition featured collection prints, drawings, photographs and watercolors by artists of the 19th & 20th centuries who were captivated by the scenery and culture of the American West. Two of the photographs chosen for this exhibition were taken out of storage for the first time since their acquisition in 1988. They were listed in the museum’s database as works by Edward Sheriff Curtis and identified as “orotones.”

Edward Sheriff Curtis, “Three Chiefs Piegan,” 1900. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.65

It is one of my responsibilities to inspect every artwork prior to display in our galleries to make sure that there are no compelling condition problems that would require treatment before the installation. The orotones were stored with the oil paintings, hanging high on massive wire mesh storage racks suspended from the ceiling. I had to climb a ladder to reach them, and at the top I leaned forward to remove the archival foamboard light shields that were fitted around their frames to protect them from unnecessary light exposure. What I uncovered were two gleaming images, casting a quiet golden glow that seemed slightly miraculous given the cold illumination provided by the overhead fluorescent lights. The orotones shone as if lit by internal church candles, and I was immediately intrigued by the beauty and presence achieved by this esoteric photographic process.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, "The Vanishing Race," 1904. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.66.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, “The Vanishing Race,” 1904. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.66.

Edward Sheriff Curtis was both prominent and prolific in the history of orotone images. His most famous endeavor involved amassing a documentary record of Native American cultures through staged scenes and portraiture, and the use of this particular technique enhanced the romantic appeal of this body of work. The IMA photographs are entitled Three Chiefs, Piegan and The Vanishing Race. They were in identical frames of gilded wood with decorative corner elements, and I came to learn that these were a common type of frame associated with Curtis’s work, personally selected to properly enhance and dignify his images.

Detail: lower left corner of the frame belonging to “Three Chiefs Piegan.”

What are orotones? This turned out to be a much more complicated question than anticipated. Other names for them include Goldtones and Curt-tones, the latter term coined by Curtis himself. The Latin word for gold is aurum, approximated by the prefix ‘oro’ which seems an obvious reference to the golden appearance of the images. This has lead to the misunderstanding that all orotones utilize actual metallic gold within the process. In truth, Curtis’s orotones were created by projecting a photographic negative onto a glass plate that had been pre-coated with a silver-gelatin emulsion, thereby creating a ‘positive’ image. The image was developed and fixed, and the emulsion was then coated with a layer of ‘bronzing powders mixed with banana oil’ to produce a backing color that enabled the highlights and shadows to be discernible, thus rendering the image readable. The ‘bronzing powders’ (metallic powders in a liquid carrier) were probably variable mixtures, but in Curtis’s work, they have been found to contain copper and zinc (note: bronze is technically defined as an alloy of copper and tin; copper and zinc are the components of brass). This metal combination was confirmed at the IMA through a brief scan using a handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. The ‘banana oil’ is amyl acetate in acetone and benzene, with the addition of a small amount of proxylin, which is a cellulose nitrate lacquer. The amyl acetate solvent is produced synthetically, but it has the distinct smell and taste of bananas, which explains the persistent use of the term ‘banana oil.’ It takes a great deal of skill to lay this coating over the emulsion flawlessly, which may help to explain the relative rarity of this process and Curtis’ justifiable pride in his mastery of the technique. He is even thought to have modified the materials to gain the precise aesthetic that he wanted, although this speculation has not been well documented.

Now that we understood what orotones were, we knew that we needed to re-examine our stewardship practices surrounding them to make sure that we were giving them the care they needed in order to survive into the distant future. It is very fortunate that we have the advice of visiting photograph conservator Paul Messier (which I wrote about here), contracted by the IMA for a condition survey of all collection photographs through a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The following information is excerpted from Paul’s survey of The Three Chiefs, Piegan:

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Filed under: Conservation, Photography, The Collection, Uncategorized

 

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