A frameless painting by Alessandro Filipepi Botticelli sat on an easel under bright white lights. The 500-year-old “Virgin with Child” tempera painting was due for repairs in September at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) at West Campus before it was returned for display at the Yale University Art Gallery. Today, the object hangs among other famed pieces in the YUAG’s European Art gallery.
But unlike the Botticelli painting, some works of art will never leave the IPCH. Damaged black-and-white photographs captured between the 1960s and 1980s by high-profile photographers were donated to the IPCH for their team to study. The photographs had developed pink and yellow stains within their white highlights — a flaw that not only destroyed the integrity and market value of these works but also stumped conservators attempting to understand the phenomenon.
“We don’t know how widespread this is going to be and whether we just encountered these particular vulnerable photographic prints that are different than everything else,” said Paul Whitmore, director of the IPCH’s Aging Diagnostics Lab.
An increasing number of old photographs have developed these discolorations, Whitmore said, and yet scientists have not identified the cause nor developed safeguards to protect at-risk photographs. Prompted by this lack of understanding, Whitmore and a team of collaborators from Yale, Harvard and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City have set out to understand photographic print staining.
Paul Messier, a photograph conservator and director of the IPCH’s Lens Media Lab, said he first noticed during the mid-1990s that contemporary black-and-white film photographs were developing similar stains without any apparent trigger. Messier, who at the time worked for art collectors, dealers and museums, said that conservators like himself had not previously seen these types of flaws and that the new phenomenon caused unrest among his clients. Since then, several photographers, artist estates and collecting institutions have expressed concern to the IPCH team that their photographs are at risk.
“People became fairly upset and nervous as the incidences started to pile up,” Messier said.
He emphasized that some of the affected prints were deliberately made to attract fine art collectors and have significant cultural and market value, adding to anxiety among the print owners.
Messier nor Whitmore both said they could not disclose the names of the artists whose photographs developed the discoloration.
“Identifying the work of certain artists as being subject to a disfiguring flaw … could scare off potential collectors or incite the owners to demand their money back,” he wrote in an email. “That reputation for creating and selling unstable things could haunt the artists.”
A damaged black-and-white print held by Whitmore’s lab depicts a figure standing in the ocean. The photo, which was captured by an award-winning photographer in the 1980s, was once colored boldly in black with white relief. Now, the black has faded to grey, and the white has turned straw yellow.
The damages to this print render it valueless. Instead of receiving admiration at exhibitions, the photo rests inside Whitmore’s utilities drawer, seen by no one besides Whitmore and the IPCH team.
The group believes that these yellow stains may result from the chemical breakdown of the black image-forming particles within these photographs. According to Messier, these particles may interact with air pollutants and other environmental stress factors such as light and humidity. These factors could transform the image-forming particles into a range of other compounds with different physical properties, such as color. Unlike the original image-forming particle, these new compounds may also be able to migrate onto the white highlight areas of the photograph, causing a colored stain.
But testing this hypothesis requires the team to create their own replicas of the stained photographs, a process that Whitmore said is hampered by the virtual extinction of film photography.
“Silver-based photography has passed into the mist of history, just like Leonardo’s paints,” Whitmore said. “Even though it wasn’t that long ago, the knowledge, the technologies are dying away before our very eyes.”
The group, however, has access to vintage photo paper from Yale’s own collection and can use these resources to reverse engineer replica photographs that are chemically identical to their stained counterparts, according to Whitmore.
“If our print that we made closely resembles the stained work of art, then it should be prone to doing the same kind of chemical reactions that will ultimately generate the stain,” Whitmore said. “And all we’re trying to do is promote that [process] and make it happen faster.”
Though the team’s research is still in its infant stages, Katherine Schilling, an associate research scientist at the IPCH, found that replica photographs exposed to air pollutants during her experiments have developed stains similar to those found on a fine art photograph donated by the collector. But she said that more work must be done to verify this finding and to understand how other factors related to gallery environments and print production may play a role in stain development.
“We’re working really as fast as we can,” Whitmore said. “This is like the CDC. We’re trying to get a head of this to understand [the staining], identify if it will become a bigger outbreak and if there is a way we can intervene to reduce the occurrence or incidence of this kind of problem.”
Marisa Peryer | firstname.lastname@example.org .