Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Photographs & Preservation. How to save Photographic Artwork for the Future?

How can we understand the material instability of photographic (mixed media) artworks (1960s - present) from an integrated approach of Art History, Conservation Science and Chemistry in order to preserve these works for the future?

2012 - 2017
Kitty Zijlmans

Since the 1960’s of the twentieth century, visual artists have done a great deal of experimenting with photography. They have used unusual techniques and applied all sorts of materials, such as paint, glue and tape to photos. These photo-works turn out to be very vulnerable to decay because of unexpected chemical reactions between the materials used. We know little about the way these materials influence one another over time. How then to preserve these photo works? The multidisciplinary team of this research program, consisting of art historians, curators, restorers and chemists, hopes to find answers to this question, in order to be able to preserve these photo works for the future.

This research program focuses on a corpus of post 1960 photographic artworks to which different materials were added or unconventional techniques applied. Apart from the ‘normal’ aging processes, mixed media  photo-works are affected by specific (chemical) interactions between the different materials and between object and environment, the chemical instability of analogue photographs and the resulting irreversible degradation. All this greatly influences appearance and has serious consequences for conservation and display. Furthermore, challenging questions are posed to conservators and art historians: what is the significance of the unusual superposition of another medium to the photograph, its subsequent aging and the differential material changes in the understanding of artworks?

To cope with these complex problems of material instability, environment and historical evidence, a multidisciplinary approach is necessary that integrates Art History with Conservation Science and Chemistry. This joint approach will be applied to photo-works for the first time to such an extent. The aim is to identify and examine the undesirable material interactions that affect art historical interpretations, conservation issues, and thus ultimately the display and interpretation of culturally important and unique photo-works, in order to formulate a conservation strategy and proactive approach to deal with future problems. New insights in the singularity of photo works will also be gained. This requires close collaboration between art historians, conservators, curators, chemists and artists to provide the broad context in which the collaborative art historical and chemical analysis of photo-works ought to be performed. A selection of internationally important photo-works from participating Dutch art museums will serve as case studies.


SP 1 Caroline von Courten (Art History), PhD-research: ‘The Photographic Surface as Interface between Substances and Spaces’. The aim of the dissertation is to create an understanding of: a. the vulnerability and sensitivity of the photographic side of hybrid photo-works; b. the transiency of the analogue photograph and the undesirable changes it might face during its lifespan; c. the non-reproducible uniqueness of these photo-works as cultural objects; d. new methods of conservation & new exhibition policies for photo-works.

SP 2 Bas Reijers (Organic Chemistry and Catalysis), PhD-research: ‘On the Chemistry of Photo-works’. The purpose of this project is twofold: firstly, to identify and study the degradation processes of the materials and the possible undesirable interactions between the chemical components that may affect the preservation, conservation and ultimately the display of these photo-works (work-in-progress). Secondly, to design an intake-protocol for the best storage and display conditions for photo-works, with the most appropriate environmental conditions for the combined materials.

SP 3 Monica Marchesi (Conservator/Conservation Studies), ‘The Preservation and Conservation Blueprint of Photo-Works’, resulting in a Decision-Making Model and an Intake-Model. PhD-research: ‘Reproduction as a conservation strategy for photo-works’. At the core of this research is the shift from photography seen as a reproducible medium to the photograph perceived in its singularity, and the subsequent art historical and ethical implications, as well as the consequences for the conservation and display practices of the museum. This way of looking at photo-works opens up ontological questions on how to consider these artworks and how to preserve and conserve them for the future. This PhD-research interacts with and follows from the research executed for the Intake and Decision Making Model.

Four key-works

  • Ger van Elk, Dutch Grey (1973), Kröller Müller Museum
  • Ger van Elk, Russian Diplomacy (1974), Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
  • John Baldessari, Virtues and Vices (for Giotto) (1981), Van Abbe Museum
  • Tacita Dean, Crowhurst II (2007), Museum De Pont.
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