Recently, a photograph by Kenneth Heilbron (American, 1903–1997), was brought to the photography conservation lab to be prepared for exhibition. Heilbron, a Chicago-based photographer who became the School of the Art Institute’s first instructor of photography in 1939, was perhaps best known for his assignment work for Time, Fortune, and Life magazines. This 1940s image of two women standing along Michigan Avenue typifies the advertising work that Heilbron did for Chicago’s Marshall Field's department store.
There’s an interesting story hidden in this print. At first glance, the conservation issues seemed common: some scratches and dust on the surface and some damage to the secondary cardboard support. But this was unlike any gelatin silver print I had seen. It was incredibly matte, with a velvet-like finish that gave it a very rich appearance. The scratches appeared unusually deep, and dust and fibers seemed to be stuck on the surface for no apparent reason.
Detail of the surface texture, as seen with normal light on the left side images and raking light on the right side images. Magnification was 8x for the top images and 32x for the bottom.
One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of photography conservation is to properly identify photographic processes, which differ not only in terms of the visual images they produce but in the materials used to create the print. Accurate knowledge of process is essential because it impacts the conservator’s approach, as different materials sometimes require different treatments.
Observing the print under the stereomicroscope, I discovered a very porous surface unlike that of any photographic paper I had seen before. With the help of the department’s senior conservator, Sylvie Penichon, the paper was identified as Gevaluxe Velours, a photographic paper produced in Belgium between 1930 and 1950 by Gevaert Photo-Producten NV. Its unusual surface was created by dusting fibrous material on a sheet of paper coated with adhesive before it was sensitized. Under the microscope, the surface of the paper looks extremely fragile and soft, but it is actually quite rough to the touch—a little like sandpaper. Unlike sandpaper, however, it will easily scratch if a hard object comes in contact with the surface. The damage can be superficial—surface fibers may be disrupted and reflect light differently. Or the fiber can be completely removed, creating a loss that exposes the white underlying paper support.
Once the structure and materials of the photographic paper were determined, I began conservation treatment based on two main criteria: long-term stability and visual appearance. First, the cardboard support on which the print is mounted was cleaned, and the delaminated and brittle edges were repaired with wheat starch paste—a very stable, reversible, and long-lasting adhesive commonly used in conservation. Then, under the microscope and with the help of tweezers, I removed, one by one, every fiber and visible dust spec that was caught in the fibrous material.
The scratches were then inpainted using a very fine brush and watercolors. The first tests were done under the stereomicroscope, but once I understood how the surface was reacting to the application of paint, I completed the inpainting on an easel using magnifiers. The tone was then gradually built up with successive thin applications of color. This technique ensured that the inpainting blended in and would be virtually undetectable. The key with this technique is to know when to stop!
This interesting print is currently on display in Gallery 10, where a selection of highlights of the Art Institute photography collection complements the exhibition Never a Lovely So Real: Photography and Film in Chicago, 1950–1980. It marks the first time this photograph has been on view since it was acquired in 2000. Come and see it in person!
—Marie-Lou Beauchamp, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Photograph Conservation, Department of Photography