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The artistry behind protecting and repairing photographs

At the Art Institute of Chicago, staff rely on state-of-the-art technology and sophisticated conservation methods, including a massive cold-storage facility, to ensure that the collection of more than 24,000 photographs is preserved. A current museum exhibit teaches visitors how that conservation process works to protect and restore what can cannot be replaced. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    And now we put a lens on the story behind the photographs in a major museum.

    Jeffrey Brown looks at the artistry that goes into preserving images for years to come.

    It's part of Canvas, our regular series on arts and culture.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Within the walls of the Art Institute of Chicago resides one of the nation's foremost collections of photography.

    Here, works by 20th century masters such as Alfred Stieglitz and Walker Evans share space with daguerreotypes from the earliest days of the medium. For a collection this size and quality to be fit for the viewing public, hours of painstaking work is required behind the scenes.

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    All right, so this is where — this is the storage.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Enter Sylvie Penichon, head of the Art Institute's Photo Conservation Department.

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    You could say I am maybe the primary care physician of the photograph collection.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Primary care physician?

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    When there's trouble or something's wrong, they call you?

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    Or maybe not, just for their annual checkup. You do a regular checkup to make sure that everything is OK, and that's what we do, too.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Penichon and her team are responsible for maintaining, preserving and repairing the more than 24,000 pieces in the museum's collection.

    It's delicate and time-consuming work, often overlooked and not fully understood. We may think of photographs as images, but, for conservators, they're first and foremost individual objects.

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    The misconception, especially for photographs, is you can just make another one. You know, we can easily print two prints that are the same. And they're actually not. There are slight differences that make every single print unique.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This work is now getting its own exhibition treatment at the Art Institute. On display, a history of photographic methods and materials, tools used by conservators, and before-and-after shots that demonstrate the painstaking lengths taken to repair and restore photographs.

    One example, a photograph by Andre Kertesz which suffered damage to its corner that required weeks months to analyze and repair.

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    For doing this, we had to pick a paper that had the same thickness of this photograph, and then build layers, so that the sheen, the surface texture of the photograph, would be mimicked.

    So, right here, we made a new corner, basically, and then painted the area where the image was missing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But the conservator's role is as much preserving photographs as repairing them.

    To that end, the Art Institute employs a massive cold storage facility, where it holds its entire collection, 60 degrees for black-and-white photographs.

    It is freezing in here.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    No warmer than 40 degrees for color.

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    The dyes naturally will fade at room temperature, even in the dark. Even if we never show them, they will fade.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Really?

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    By being in the cold, the dyes don't fade as fast. The colder the temperature, the slower the reaction.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Back in the exhibit, the effects are plain to see.

    Two prints by Joel Meyerowitz of the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, one kept in cold storage for 22 years, the other just eight.

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    The more we study, the more we understand the effect of time and of certain things, like, I don't know, pollution in the air, ozone from the photocopy machine, or things like this. And we understand better how certain things have an aging effect more than others. And we try to mitigate those.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To Penichon, all this is needed to preserve what she describes as the materiality of a photograph.

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    A photograph is in itself, as an object, encapsulate a moment. It is the reflection of a certain moment. The way we decide to do things is a choice. And this choice is encapsulated in the results.

    So that photograph, not only the image is a moment in time. The object itself represent that moment as well.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Of course, in the age of smartphones and digital cameras, materiality has changed. The Art Institute has stepped up its collection of digital media, but Penichon fears something may be lost.

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    You need a machine to look at them. They're not — you cannot stumble on your photograph, like you would your grandparents', you know, a shoebox with prints.

    Our grandkids or great-grand kids, they're not going to stumble on a shoebox.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So there's something to be said for the old shoebox full of old…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    Yes, even though it's not — we tell people, don't put your photos in shoeboxes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You do?

  • Sylvie Penichon:

    Yes, yes, because it's not ideal. But there is something to be said about the shoebox.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The exhibition Conserving Photographs runs through April.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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