Disaster Recovery: The Benefits of an Interdisciplinary Studio

Over the last several months, we have been working to recover and preserve a collection of photographs and related material damaged in hurricane Sandy in October of 2012.  The material was promptly frozen after the storm and transferred with the aid of dry ice to our Housatonic, MA location.  Bit by bit, the material has been thawed, washed, and rehoused in manageable batches by members of our staff.

We began with the most straightforward material, washing and drying negatives and prints that were in good condition and, though wet, were otherwise undamaged by the flood thanks to the quick action of the collections manager.  This material was cataloged and well documented by the archive, and retaining the information from the original water damaged envelopes and housings was, though laborious, relatively simple to do.

After finishing the recovery of the well organized material, we then faced the daunting task of recovering the “mixed bag” of material.  This material had not yet been as rigorously cataloged or organized, and a variety of media had been frozen together (a necessary measure given the extreme circumstances).  Approaching this material, the benefits of a multidisciplinary studio quickly came to light.  By having staff experienced in collections management, preservation, conservation, and digitization, we were able to pull from a range of experience to find a number of creative solutions to difficult problems.

Low_Res_FrozenSlidesLabelled slides in polyester sleeves were one example from the “mixed bag” that required special treatment.  The mounts of the slides were badly damaged by the water, causing colorant in the slide adhesive to migrate and the adhesive to partially dissolve.  Furthermore, the printing on the labels, while still legible in their frozen stage, rapidly disintegrated as soon as any handling, thawing, or washing occurred.  While it was not necessary to preserve the mounts, it was necessary to preserve the information from the labels and to return it to the preserved slides after they had been washed, dried, and remounted.  Since we don’t have a walk-in freezer in which to catalog the images and transfer the label information, we needed a way to both record the information and to match it back up with the correct image later on.  We decided to make high resolution images of the slide pages while they were still frozen.  This required using a 39 MP camera (a scanner would be too slow and the slides would start to thaw) and a combination of transmitted and reflective lighting so that both the labels and the images would be legible.

Polaroid RecoveryAnother piece requiring extra attention and fast thinking in the “mixed bag” was a Polaroid photograph that was found frozen among a group of color snapshots.  While the chromogenic prints responded as expected to our routine of washing and drying, the Polaroid was furrowed and almost entirely separated from it’s base.  The emulsion was removed from the base so that the pellicle could be flattened using a similar method as what we use for deteriorated acetate negative recovery, but using an opaque sheet of white plastic rather than glass as the work surface so that scans could be made throughout the process.  If the process hadn’t worked, we would at least have a digital record of the stages of the attempted recovery, allowing us to digitally restore the image if necessary.  However, the recovery attempt was fairly successful.  After the flattened image was digitized, it was dried in contact with a sheet of fiber based, processed, photo paper.  The gelatin on the paper adhered to the image pellicle, giving it a new support that would closely resemble it’s old support.  While the image did retain some staining and traces from the furrowing, an object that could have been written off as completely destroyed was saved both in digital and physical form.

Envelope RecoveryKeeping all of the levels of information from the boxes, sleeves, and envelopes with the images and transferring it onto new, undamaged housings was no small feat either.  This is when experience in collections management becomes very valuable.  A disaster like a flood doesn’t allow for much time to carefully sort through, organize, and compile records for all of the outgoing material.   While a lot of effort went into the wet recovery phase of the physical materials, an almost equal amount was devoted to organizing and retaining information in the form of sorting/organizing, relabeling, and rehousing the entire collection in archival enclosures.

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Helen Levitt in Color

In addition to working with traditional and digital methods of negative production, CAW also has the capability to create digital film transparencies. One such project was the restoration and re-creation of the slide show Helen Levitt in Color, originally exhibited September 16 – October 20, 1974 for her Projects show at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This work consists of 40 colour photographs made by Levitt on the streets of New York from 1971-74 and has, in various forms, been featured in several books and catalogues.


“Untitled” from Projects: Helen Levitt in Color 1971-74
Chromogenic color transparencies shown in continuous projection Purchase
© 2013 The Estate of Helen Levitt

Over time, colour transparency film can be susceptible to colour shifts and fading. The goal of the project was to create sets of exhibition slides for MoMA’s collection that represent the images as they appeared when first produced.  To achieve the best result, a wide range of source material including, 35mm slides, dye transfer prints and chromogenic color prints from the collections of MoMA and the Estate of Helen Levitt were digitised to make the high resolution files. These files were then used to translate the images back into the 35mm transparency format for exhibition.

It was a technical and aesthetic challenge to re-create this collection of images from such a wide variety of sources and materials, each

Reproduction contact sheet for Projects: Helen Levitt in Color made from a variety of image media prepared for lvt output.

Reproduction proof sheet for Projects: Helen Levitt in Color made from a variety of image media prepared for lvt E6 film output.

unique in its inherent qualities and in physical condition. For certain images a direct transcription from slide to slide was impossible so there was the need to transpose from the original medium to another. In careful consultation with Marvin Hoshino of the Helen Levitt Estate, Sarah Meister, Curator and Tasha Lutek, Cataloguer from the Department of Photography at MoMA, we were able to digitally restore the images and then output them as 35mm slides using an LVT film recorder and 8×10, E6 reversal film.

These photographs remain an important and vital artistic work; Levitt’s dynamic frame, sense of tonality, and the humanity with which she has captured the citizens of New York, continue to make this series of images a pleasure to view and to contemplate.

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Hollywood Platinum Portraits

Here at the Albumen Works we recently had the opportunity to produce a set of platinum prints for Richard Cartwright, a professional on-set photographer working in the motion picture industry in Hollywood.

Using a Leica M monochrome digital camera to make several portraits of the actor Peter Mensah (300, Avatar, True Blood) Cartwright sought to marry the technological sophistication of the digital age with a handcrafted 19th century printing aesthetic that celebrated the object as well as the image. To this end he approached CAW to have his vision translated into platinum/palladium prints.


Emily positions the coated paper over the negative.


Each print is hand developed in trays.

From digital files Emily Wagner Phoenix produced large format film negatives on the LVT image recorder; then hand coated the paper with the sensitizer that produces the subtle tones that platinum and palladium prints are prized for.


Peter Mensah #1 © 2013 Richard Cartwright

An effective and beautiful combination of 19th, 20th and 21st century photographic technologies; these archival, handmade prints lend a timelessness and depth to these portraits made with the precision optics and imaging technology of a state-of-the-art digital camera.

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Albumen Printing Workshop with the Better Image


Emily Phoenix and Ki-joo Kim prepare the lab for the workshop


Doug Munson distributes historical and technical information for each of the workshop participants.

The Albumen Works had the great pleasure to host an albumen printing workshop in the early part of December for Peter Mustardo, Richard Stenman, Amanda Maloney, Michelle Kloehn, and Alison Rossiter from The Better Image as well as Nora Kennedy Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs and Maggie Wessling, a student intern, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The weekend opened on Friday afternoon with Doug Munson giving a short history of the process and the science behind why and how it works. Doug has been making albumen prints since the 1970s and has printed a large number of historic 19th & 20th century negatives and glass plates by such photographers as Eadweard Muybridge, Carleton Watkins, Edouard Baldus and Eugene Atget for a number of public institutions.


As with omelettes, so too with albumen prints…

From there the participants were taken through the initial stages of creating the albumen for  coating. Separating the egg whites, salting the albumen, coating the paper both for large quantity processing as well as for “domestic” use. Once the basic process from the coating through the hardening to sensitizing of the paper had been demonstrated the participants began in earnest making prints and experimenting with the process.


Prints from a calotype, digital negative and a 20s sheet film negative.

The participants brought a number of different negative media to use during the workshop as well as having sent a group of digital files that were tailored to match the albumen printing process and made into film negatives by Emily Phoenix using an LVT film recorder. These materials ranged across the history of photography; prints were made from glass plates, antique film negatives, calotype negatives, and photograms were all attempted as were digital images originating from a smart phone!

There were several auxiliary demonstrations given by the CAW staff: Ki-Joo Kim demonstrated wet mounting prints from the mixing of the paste to the final pressing of the image between blotters on an iron book press. Emily Phoenix gave a brief overview of the LVT system and how we produce digital film negatives.


Participant’s prints.

Given the professional interest in the process by the participants there was a great deal of informal experimenting going on throughout the weekend as different negatives were printed, printing times tried and toners used or not used. Nora Kennedy investigated the production and printing of “matte albumen” and by the time the last participant reluctantly left Sunday afternoon, there had been more than 100 prints made by all.


Winding up the weekend: Richard Stenman, Amanda Maloney, Peter Mustardo, Ki-joo Kim, Emily Phoenix, Allan Phoenix, Maggie Wessling, our waiter, Michelle Kloehn, Nora Kennedy, Alison Rossiter, Toddy Munson & Doug Munson.

It is always a pleasure to host such an interesting, and convivial group of colleagues and we are looking forward to our next historical process workshop.

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Making Facsimile Prints & Album

Over the last couple of years CAW has had the pleasure of working with Barbara Wheaton and her family digitising and printing reproductions of a collection of etchings and engravings prior to their donation to a cultural institution. There were many different sizes and styles of prints which were captured using both the Sinar and Hasselblad cameras; we had the opportunity to handle works by such Masters as Albrecht Dürer and Honoré Daumier, to name just two of the artists and craftsmen represented in the collection.

Etching by Albrecht Dürer from the collection of Barbara Wheaton.

The project also provided us with an opportunity to create a number of facsimile albums that can be enjoyed by different members of the family.

The Fabrication of Facsimile Albums

The final stage of the project was the fabrication of five facsimile albums containing ten engravings from the 16th century by the artist Gerhard Groningen representing the ten stages of a man’s life.

The second in the Gronigen’s series on a man’s life.

Once we decided to not to duplicate the effects of time on the cover, the first challenge in this project was selecting materials that reflected the look and quality of the original. Fortunately quality papers are still made and we were able to acquire high quality paper that matched the original from Talas.

The original album showing age and wear.

The album itself consists of ten engravings with interleaving, stab bound and sewn together in stiff grey paper wrappers with marbled paper on the spine. The prints themselves are sewn together and comprise the pages of the album. The whole album was captured, page by page, recto and verso, with the Hasselblad camera and adjustments made in PhotoShop in order replicate the subtle tones of the paper and the detail of the engravings. The facsimiles of the prints themselves were made on a double-sided semi-matte inkjet paper made by Moab from Legion Paper and printed on an Epson Pro Stylus 7800 printer.

The use of inkjet photo paper, necessary for accurate image reproduction, presented a mechanical challenge during the binding process. It is stiff and the surface is prone to cracking and flaking if folded to turn pages. This difficulty was overcome by cutting each of the pages into a page and a spine and re-connecting them, leaving a small gap, with P90 tape on both sides to form a hinge.

Allan Phoenix pasting up the covers.

Each album was then sewn in a similar manner to the original, using the stab binding and sewing pattern found in the album. A Canson Ingres paper was used for the cover was glued over a light archival card stock for stiffness. Unlike the original, whose covers were cut flush to the prints, the facsimile covers were made slightly larger in order to protect the edges of the inkjet paper from abrasion.





Much care was taken to source materials that closely replicated the original and we obtained handmade interleaving papers by Ruscombe Mills and the Restauro Series of Italian hand marbled paper from Talas.

The elegant visual and tactile nature of these papers and the detailed  image reproductions combined to create a group of facsimiles that are both pleasing to the eye and the hand and should confer the grace of time as they age.

The albums side by side.

The original and completed facsimile albums.







(use of the print images courtesy of Barbara Wheaton & family)

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Digitizing an Heirloom Family Album

Recently we had the opportunity to work with a wonderful personal collection of photographic material from the late 19th & early 20th centuries contained within a family album.

Some examples of the range of print types in this historic family album requiring accurate color rendering.

There were many fine examples of different silver gelatin processes and albumen prints. As with most family albums there were casual snap shots as well as formal portraits along with cartes de visite from professional studios. There were also a wide range travel images from around North America and the world.

Using our Hasselblad H3D2 camera, we carefully captured the 100 pages of this fragile leather bound album in order to make digital and physical surrogates. The  high resolution digital files can be used to make a variety of physical surrogates such as ink jet prints; in this instance a number of “print-on-demand” books are being printed and distributed amongst the family members. To help protect the physical integrity of the album the original was then carefully housed in a new, archival clam shell box for safe storage.

Visually accurate and high resolution digital imaging processes can help prolong the life of similar delicate photographic heirlooms or works on paper by diminishing the need for frequent handling and the damage that could ensue.

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Presentation at TechFocus II

Coming up at the end of this week Doug Munson of the Chicago Albumen Works and Jeffrey Warda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will be giving a presentation: “Acquisition and Creation of Exhibition Copies for Slide Works” on Friday April 27th at this year’s TechFocus II: Caring for Film and Slide Art workshop in Washington DC at the Hirshhorn Museum.

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Acetate Negative Recovery Lecture at George Eastman House

For the second year running Chicago Albumen Works’ Emily Phoenix was asked to deliver a slide presentation on Acetate Negative Recovery (aka: “stripping”) to the students of the Ryerson University Photographic Preservation and Collections Management program and staff at George Eastman House.

Emily’s lecture outlined various approaches on caring for a collection of cellulose negatives, highlighting the differences between those with a nitrate and acetate base. While there is little that can be done for badly deteriorated nitrate negatives, the images from acetate sheet films suffering from “vinegar syndrome” and other symptoms of acetate base deterioration can potentially be recovered by negative stripping.

The students & staff participated in a thoughtful Q&A session following the presentation; and were enthusiastic to handle wet and dry samples of the gelatin layer removed from its base. A PPCM alumna herself, Emily was pleased to chat with the students, and looks forward to returning to Rochester and sharing her knowledge with next years students.

Emily’s presentation allowed the audience to understand the materials and layer structure acetate negatives, and the deterioration stages of these objects. She emphasized that if collections of negatives with advanced deterioration are encountered there are ways to recover the images – often the most vital aspect for historical societies and libraries.         -Jamie Allen, Assistant Curator of Photographs, George Eastman House.

Thanks again to the staff of George Eastman House for their interest and participation.

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Gottscho Acetate Negative Recovery

Approximately 800 negatives made by the architectural photographer Samuel H. Gottscho, in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, are in the process of being conserved, rehoused, and digitized by Chicago Albumen Works.  As with other acetate negative recovery projects which CAW has undertaken, the pellicle is removed from the unstable and badly damaged base, carefully pieced together if broken or cracked, scanned at high resolution, and duplicate negatives are produced.

For more information about Samuel H. Gottscho please visit MCNY’s site, or read this interesting New York Times article by Randy Kennedy: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/27/arts/design/27myth.html.

Negative before, during, and after treatment.  Image use courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York:

International Music Hall, Theater Interior, 1932
Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho
Museum of the City of New York, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection

Posted in Acetate Deterioration, Acetate Film Conservation, Acetate Film Restoration, Archival Digitization, Archival Film Output, Digital Imaging, Digital Negatives, Negative Scanning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

JPAC: Conservation of Acetate film

CAW is currently working on a project to conserve deteriorated acetate x-rays and flouroscope images from the Korean War.  By stripping the layer of gelatin emulsion away from the deteriorating acetate base, it is possible to flatten these badly distorted, cracked, and discolored images and to scan the restored image.  For more information on this project, please see the article recently published in the Boston Globe.

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