A new research lab at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage will bring photography conservation and preservation into focus.
Construction is currently ongoing for the Lens Media Laboratory, a facility devoted to the study of the material and cultural significance of “lens made” images. The facility is a product of a $6.6 million anonymous donation announced in late February. One of the world’s leading photography conservators, Paul Messier, will head the lab, which is expected to be fully operational this fall, said director of the IPCH Stefan Simon. As part of the donation, Messier’s reference collection of 20th century photographic papers will also come to Yale.
“Photography is a field with growing importance,” Simon said. “Right now, there are not a lot of labs devoted to the conservation of lens media, so [LML] is a huge asset that enables us to put Yale on the map in this expanding field.”
Simon said construction on the lab — which will be equipped with technology such as multispectral and reflection transformation imaging, various types of microscopy and 3D scanners — will be finished in early summer. More equipment may be purchased at Messier’s discretion once he arrives at Yale, Simon added.
Besides being one of the foremost experts in photography conservation, Messier is very familiar with Yale’s photographic collections, Simon said. In 2010, he was part of a team that surveyed 82 repositories of photographs, including those at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Yale Law School and the Department of Athletics. At LML, Messier said, he will use the survey as a springboard for finding new ways of understanding and preserving photographs’ material composition.
Messier said his goal is to study art, which can be highly subjective, from an objective perspective. In this regard, the lab will analyze the chemical, physical and mechanical aspects of the 20th century photographic papers, curated for the past 20 years, that Messier will bring with him to Yale.
“The goal is to capture the genome of 20th century black-and-white printing before it disappears,” Messier said. “Photographs are losing any sort of material tether — they’re disintegrating into the cloud. It’s a historic transition.”
Simon said the lab will also use the reference collection to address the issue of forgeries in photography. If the composition of the photograph contains materials, such as detergents, that had yet to be used in the time period during which it was made, then there is strong evidence that it is a fake, he said. Not only is the artist’s legacy degraded and the buyer at a loss — the public is also a victim of deception.
As a lab for conversation and preservation, LML will also be involved in work to prevent the decay of photographs and prolong their lifespan. For digital photographs, he added, one of the major issues is that the hardware used to display them quickly becomes out-of-date.
Though an assistant scientist and a research fellow will also join the lab, Simon said the space will be the site for major collaboration with other research labs at the IPCH, as well as Yale museums and academic departments. Chief Conservator at the Yale University Library Christine McCarthy said the library’s extensive photographic collections will foster collaboration with the lab regarding inquiries into conservation and material composition.
Messier said he also hopes to form partnerships with the Computer Science and Statistics Departments at Yale in order to help turn art into a useful data set for research.
In this regard, the lab will be an important step forward in Yale’s growing involvement with the digital humanities, said American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies professor Laura Wexler. She added that the lab will be a “generative” space for students, faculty and conservators to collaborate on photography research.
Meg McHale ’17, a member of the Yale Photography Society, said she is excited about the new lab because photography is often lost in the shuffle of Yale’s other renowned arts programs. She added that she hopes its location on West Campus would not limit student participation in the lab’s research endeavors.