With an understanding as to what these images were, our next step was to have conservator Zach Long examine them and in coordination with curator Lisa Hostetler determine the scope of the treatment required for display. The sheer size of the works made this entire process both fascinating and difficult, as each print took up three full benches in the conservation lab. Even before removing the prints from their ca. 1970 frames, condition issues such as planar distortions, tears, losses, yellow edge discoloration, and potential image discoloration were observed. The frames also utilized a pressure-fit technique that is no longer recommended. In this case, the photographs were sandwiched against the glazing, providing little structural support for the large works and increasing the chances of surface abrasion and blocking (where the surface of the print becomes adhered to the glazing).
Next, an excavation of sorts through poor-quality framing materials took place. Once the prints were removed, it was found that the edges had numerous small tears and that the yellow discoloration along their perimeters was caused by significantly deteriorated masking tape. The tape dated back to the production of the works, and was applied by the artist to reinforce the edges of the fragile paper, which was prone to tearing. Unfortunately, the adhesive on pressure-sensitive tapes has a tendency to migrate, and in this case it traveled into the paper support and through edge tears to the front of the prints.
During examination, questions arose that could only be definitively answered by the artist himself. Floris Neüsuss was contacted and fortunately was willing and able to discuss the methods he employed when making these prints over 50 years ago. Through this means it was confirmed that a subtle pink haze surrounding the figure in Figur auf Weiss was not originally intended but acceptable to the artist. The artist also confirmed that he had been the one to apply the tape along the perimeter and that it should be removed.
A treatment was then proposed by the conservator and approved by the curator. The first step was the removal of the tape from the versos of the prints. The tape had undergone significant deterioration and the rubber-based adhesive had become completely embrittled. The tape’s paper carrier came off fairly easily, but the reduction of the adhesive required a full three and a half days of delicate scraping with a scalpel and micro spatula. In total, over 450 inches of adhesive material had to be carefully reduced without damaging the objects. Where the adhesive had penetrated tears, sharp creases, and pinholes, it was much more visible from the front side of the prints. To reduce these stains solvent poultices were locally applied.
The next step was the mending of numerous tears and then filling a fairly large loss in the upper left corner of Figur auf Weiss. The tears were mended with small strips of Japanese kozo paper, a tissue weight paper that has exceptional strength due to its long fiber length. The area of loss required a little more work. Zach compensated for this area using a fill constructed of several laminations of toned kozo papers. This method allowed for fine adjustment of tonality, and when coated with a layer of lightly pigmented gelatin, the fill was a reasonable match to the surrounding area.
These were not the only steps taken to treat the two photograms, but it gives you an idea of the work that goes into the conservation of photographic works. The story doesn’t end here though, given the size of these objects, preparation for display was an important and delicate process… but you’ll have to wait to hear about that!
*These posts were first published as part of the Photography Department's Photo Finish 5K Campign, and were co-written by Jamie Allen, Lisa Hostetler, Zach Long, Emily Phoenix, and Kate Meyers Emery. Photographs include Zach Long removing tape from the photogram and XRF analysis of the photogram, both taken by Taina Meller.