Preserving and Caring for Vernacular Photographs: A Workshop with Monique Fischer

By Jennifer Orpana

On Tuesday, September 13th 2016, a classroom at The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) was abuzz with anticipation, as over 30 participants prepared for a vernacular/family photography workshop, hosted by The Family Camera Network and The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Monique Fischer, a Senior Photograph Conservator at the Northeast Document Conservation Centre (NEDCC) in Andover, Massachusetts, facilitated the workshop, which was entitled, “The Identification & Care of Photographs.”

For over two decades, Ms. Fischer has worked on the conservation of photographic materials. Collaborating with the Image Permanence Institute, she has developed A-D Strips, an award-winning tool that detects deterioration in acetate film. She has been awarded two fellowships by the J. Paul Getty Trust to investigate the longevity of digital output media and is a Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC).

The workshop explored the specific needs of vernacular photography: photographs largely taken by amateur or unknown photographers, which capture everyday moments of life, and which date back as early as the 19th century. Snapshots, photos in family albums, and born-digital images that are uploaded to social media sites, are just a few examples of vernacular photography. While in many ways, conservation issues are the same across the photographic spectrum, some issues are specific to the recent history of vernacular or amateur photography. These include: the lack of quality in certain kinds of colour film; the use of magnetic albums, which eventually cause damage to the photos they hold; and the long-term storage of digital photographs.

These are challenges that The Family Camera Network is confronting, as its members begin the process of collecting a range of photographs for the project’s public archives – from 19th-century daguerreotypes and albumen prints to contemporary colour prints and born-digital images. Ms. Fischer’s workshop addressed the different processes that have been, and are currently, used to produce vernacular photographs, as well as the unique storage and preservation needs of each type of image.

These issues and questions are relevant beyond collecting institutions, however. They are also important to anyone who inherits collections of old family photographs or is interested in preserving his our her own personal photographic collection. In fact, the NEDCC provides countless online resources on photographic preservation, which are useful to a wide range of vernacular photo collectors.

The morning session began with a lecture that helped to define vernacular photography and gave an overview of a number of types of photographs. Ms. Fischer covered 19th-century and early 20th-century photographic materials, photomechanical processes, colour materials, and digital output materials. Fischer then explained how different photographs show signs of deterioration, including visual clues, such as curling, fading, and abrading, as well as olfactory clues, including the vinegary smell of deteriorating cellulose acetate film and the musty scent of mold. She also addressed preventative tips and strategies including the optimal storage temperatures for different types of photographs, the best materials to use for photographic storage, and the proper handling of photographic materials.

Monique Fischer presenting a lecture on identification and care of photographs at The Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo: Celio Barreto, 13 Sept. 2016)

Monique Fischer presenting a lecture on identification and care of photographs at The Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo: Celio Barreto, 13 Sept. 2016)

After lunch, 15 participants were invited into the storage area of the ROM to experience the process of identifying photographs first-hand. Armed with a photo-identification chart from James M. Reilly’s book, Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints (1986), and specialized magnifying tools, small groups tackled stacks of unknown photographs. Participants scrutinized each image. This exercise filled the usually quiet storage area with ebullient chatter, as they asked each other questions: “Can you see the paper fibres?” “Do you see how the image is abraded?” “Is there a greenish tone to this image?” “Can you see a slight sheen on the surface?” Participants encouraged each other with such comments as, “You have to see this letterpress half tone through the microscope!” and excitedly announced, “We got it right!” Ms. Fischer’s guidance throughout this exercise was invaluable as participants took on the problem-solving involved in photo-identification. Participants from OCADU's Digital Futures course commented that the workshop enabled them to better understand the "complexity and time consuming nature of the early processes and gave them much more appreciation of those photographs as artifacts."

Workshop participants identifying unknown photographs at The Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo: Jennifer Orpana, 13 Sept. 2016)

Workshop participants identifying unknown photographs at The Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo: Jennifer Orpana, 13 Sept. 2016)

At the end of the workshop, Ms. Fischer offered a brief consultation on the continued care and preservation of various photographic objects in the ROM Collection, including: the Kaiser-i-Hind album of studio samples (post 1876-1900), a carte-de-visite album from the Cyrus and Ruth Jhabvala Collection (c.1890s), an extremely fragile album of albumen prints representing the visit of the Duke of Connaught to Hyderabad (1889), a handful of negatives from a field study in varying stages of deterioration (c.1970s); and some photographs from The Family Camera Network public archive, including contemporary snapshots and digital files.

Ms. Fischer examines the album of the visit of the Duke of Connaught to Hyderabad from the ROM collection. (Photo: Celio Barreto, 13 Sept. 2016)

Ms. Fischer examines the album of the visit of the Duke of Connaught to Hyderabad from the ROM collection. (Photo: Celio Barreto, 13 Sept. 2016)

The group of participants was a mix of ROM staff and interns, members of The Family Camera Network Collecting Team, volunteers at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, instructors and graduate students from OCAD University’s Digital Futures “Family Camera at the ROM” course, and students from Ryerson University’s Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management program. While the participants represent diverse interdisciplinary fields, they share a keen interest in the identification and care of family photographs.

Ms. Fischer’s expertise enabled participants to identify key problems in photo preservation and to understand resources in addressing these problems.