Photographs are surprisingly delicate objects—vulnerable to damage sustained through improper handling, poor storage conditions, and even flaws inherent to their own chemistry. In the daily care of the Art Institute’s photography collection, formed in 1949 and comprising approximately 24,000 objects from early daguerreotypes to present-day digital prints and time-based media, photograph conservators take the utmost precautions. They meticulously document a work’s condition; enact preventative measures to keep it safe while it’s stored, shipped, and displayed; and undertake scientific research to learn more about its material composition. When damage is evident, they carry out state-of-the-art treatments, effectively turning back the hands of time.
Since 1982, the Art Institute has maintained a world-class facility devoted to the examination, analysis, preservation, and conservation of photographs, including a cold-storage vault dedicated to color photographs—the
first of its kind in a fine art museum. This exhibition invites visitors to travel behind the scenes of our cutting-edge conservation lab, revealing the numerous steps taken to care for and preserve the collection. Visitors are able to discover how structural and aesthetic integrity is restored to damaged works through microphotographs that uncover characteristic features of papers, artificially aged samples that illustrate the effects of light on dyes, and side-by-side copies of the same image that show the inherent shortcomings of certain processes and the benefits of proper storage conditions.
Through a wide selection of works from the museum’s collection that showcase the technical history of photographic processes from the 19th century to the present, as well as the related conservation, preservation, and connoisseurship issues that attend them, this unique presentation affords the rare opportunity to look at the collection through a conservator’s eyes and see photographs anew.
Taking precise color measurements of photographs, before and after exhibitions, with a spectrophotometer helps conservators detect any changes in color before they become visible to the human eye.