Caring for photographic materials – part 1

Knole has a small collection of photographic materials, consisting of glass plate negative, film negatives, albums and various loose prints.  These objects offer a great source of information to us on the social history of Knole, as well as providing us with curatorial records of the house and grounds. They are currently kept in store as there is no where suitable for them to be displayed and not all of them are not in a good enough condition to go on display.

One of the annotated photo albums / scrap books in the collection.

One of the annotated photo albums / scrap books in the collection.

We are about to embark on a re-housing / storage project of the collection.  So to prepare us for the task ahead I went on a one day course to bring my knowledge and skills up to speed.  The course was led by the NTs acting conservation advisor on photographic materials Sarah Allen.  Sarah began the day with an introduction to what photographs are,  there are two ways of looking at it.

The word “photograph” literally means drawing with light.  A photograph is an image produced by light reacting with a chemically sensitised surface.

Sarah in action.

Sarah in action.

What a photograph is physically:
Click on image to enlarge.

Slide copyright of Sarah Allen.

But a photograph is also:

A means of capturing a moment in time.
A source of information and a record.
A form of art.
A language.

To set the how we care for photographic materials in to context Sarah took us through the history and development of photography.  Starting with a handy time line:

Slide copyright of Sarah Allen

Slide copyright of Sarah Allen

I knew that photography had officially been created in the nineteenth century, but I was fascinated to discover how early people had experimented to produce images.  .

Learning how to handle an object is always extremely important.  A lot of physical damage caused to objects are as a result of mis-handling.  Sarah’s top tips for handling photographic materials are:

• Ensure you have a clean and clear work area
• Remove any rings or other jewellery that may catch or snag
• Gloves should always be worn. Nitrile gloves are best
• Handle objects with two hands on the edges only or supported with card, never by just a corner
• If met with resistance when taking photo out of enclosure, STOP and seek advice
• Use only pencil for note-taking near unprotected photographs
• No food or drink should be consumed or placed near unprotected photographs
It is very important to Identify the emulsion side of a photograph as this is particularly vulnerable to damage during handling, and you need to make sure that when you put a photograph down you place it on the right side.
The emulsion side for the following are:

Paper prints / tintypes – the image/shiny side

Glass and plastic negatives / film – matt side

Wet collodion positive / daguerreotypes – usually protected with varnish and case.

The absolute key thing not to do is touch the emulsion with bare fingers because the oily residues from our skin cause degradation. Disfiguring marks can eventually appear even if not visible immediately.

The next part of the day focused on photographic techniques and how to identify them, which will all be revealed soon in part 2!



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