45th Annual Meeting – Photographic Materials Session, May 30, “The Re-creation and Conservation of Megalethoscope Slides” by Monique C. Fischer

Ms. Fischer’s talk focused on megalethoscope slides, an uncommon 19th century photographic process. When a group of these slides were brought to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) their conservation presented some challenges. Particularly, the lack of primary sources on the construction of the slides themselves. Further, the slides bridge conservation specialties, since they are comprised of albumen photographs on a wooden support. Ms. Fischer and her colleagues at NEDCC came up with some innovative treatment approaches to conserve these unique objects. Fischer underscored the collaborative nature of this project, which included FAIC, the George Eastman Museum, and numerous departments at NEDCC.

Megalethoscope slides are albumen prints mounted to a concave wooden support. Slides are placed into a viewer, which creates the illusion of depth and enlarges the image. The image can be lit from front (reflected) or back (transmitted) to create visual effects.

The first challenge of this treatment project was the lack of contemporary or historic information about the process. Fischer indicated one publication from 1999 that talked about the conservation of Megalethoscope slides and gave some helpful diagrams: Topics in Photographic Preservation 1999, Volume 8, Article 5 (pp. 23-30) “Megalethoscope Plates A Case Study: Conservation Treatment of Megalethoscope plates from the Collection of the ‘Museum for Art and History’ Brussels, Belgium” by Sylke Heylen and Herman Maes with supervision of Roger Kockaerts http://resources.conservation-us.org/pmgtopics/1999-volume-eight/08_05_Heylen.html

In order to learn more, Fischer worked with Mark Osterman, Photographic Process Historian at the George Eastman Museum (GEM). Todd Gustafson from the GEM also contributed because they have some megalethoscope viewers in the collection. Period megalethoscope slides at the GEM to were examined to extrapolate the process. Damaged slides proved to be the most useful for this, as they allowed for examination of the layers. The process Fischer described was complex. To summarize: They created albumen prints from digital negatives. The photographs were pierced from the front. The reverse of the print was painted with watercolor. A convex frame was made from bent pine. The photograph was attached to the frame using hide glue and then the edges were taped with black paper tape. Tissue paper was then added to the reverse. A dust cover was then added to the back of the slide.

Fischer showed a video of what it is like to view their re-created megalethoscope slide through the viewer. The scene began with reflected light, showing a landscape that was deceptively 3-dimensional. The light then transitioned to transmitted (behind the photograph), and the sun appeared to set in the scene and previously un-seen holes in the photograph created dramatic lights in a night scene. The effect is quite unique and certainly impressive.

The conservation treatment was designed to address the major condition issues: significant dirt, fly specks, tears and brittle dust covers with bug damage. The tear mending required some inventiveness because of the concave nature of the object and the layered structure. Fischer and other NEDCC conservators adapted a technique from Japanese panels in order to repair the tears. In this technique blotting paper supports are held in place with string to support the tear as it dries. After drying the string is cut. The dust covers were original, but highly damaged. A remoistenable lining was used to stabilize the dust cover, while minimizing moisture.

Finally, the inpainting of these photographs also presented challenges, since it had to be effective in both reflected and transmitted light. They mixed these two lighting techniques during inpainting.

In the question session following the talk, Fischer indicated that they used Gamblin Conservation Colors for inpainting because they were more translucent than watercolor. The book conservation department at NEDCC created custom phase boxes to house and protect the slides.

45th Annual Meeting – Photographic Materials Session, May 30, “Bellmer: Complexities of the Doll” by Krista Lough

Ms. Lough’s talk focused on Hans Bellmer’s Doll series of photographs. She gave some interesting background on Bellmer and her professed lifelong love of the artist was evident. As a fellow in photograph conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago, Lough’s work focused on the Art Institute’s newly-acquired doll print, which is a large print. She outlined some interesting discoveries about this print and found some parallels in other collections of Bellmer’s work. Her discussion of handcoloring, overall airbrushing, and mounting of the prints have obvious implications for conservators working with Bellmer photographs.

Hans Bellmer was a German professional working during the rise of the Nazi Party. He left his career in advertising as an act of rebellion in the 1930s because he didn’t want to (even indirectly) benefit the German state. He began a project with his brother to construct and photograph an artificial doll in 1933. Two additional dolls were constructed in 1935 (second doll) and 1937 (the Machine-Gunneress in a State of Grace). The dolls were posed in provocative and intentionally perverse positions and then photographed. The dolls seemed to get more abstract, with multiple sets of breasts, legs, pelvises, and torsos. They were made primarily of tissue paper and glue.

Bellmer made both small format photographs and larger prints. In particular, a set of hand-colored small prints was created for a book “Les Jeux de la Poupee” created with the surrealist poet Paul Éluard. He made some larger prints, about 26 inches square, at this time of the same images. The Art Institute’s print is a large print of an image from this book. In the course of Lough’s study, she found that the larger print did not precisely relate to the copy in the book, implying that he was working from multiple negatives and making specific decisions unique to each print. Lough stressed that he was treating each print as a unique work of art, not trying to replicate the same appearance in all prints of the same image.

The Art Institute’s print had some interesting overpainting, including an overall layer of dark airbrushing that was difficult to see without magnification. This layer appears to have an overall darkening effect on the print. There was also extensive applications of gouache and dyes. When Lough compared this print to other large doll prints, she found no rigid working method that Bellmer applied to all the prints. Again, they appear to have been treated uniquely.

When considering treatment of the Art Institute’s print, Lough encountered some obstacles unique to Bellmer’s working method. The treatment was designed to address issues with grime, losses and chipping in the media. Through extensive testing she found that the print could not be safely surface cleaned. Traditional cleaning solutions such as water/ethanol removed retouching. Ethanol alone caused changes to the surface sheen (perhaps indicating a coating? Samples were taken for testing). Even dry cleaning was ruled out because the abrasive action reduced the topography of the gouache. This meant that the treatment was limited to tear repair.

In summary, Lough emphasized that Bellmer’s Doll photographs should be treated as unique and distinct objects with very real conservation challenges.