42nd Annual Meeting – Photographic Materials, May 30, "Preservation of Deborah Luster's One Big Self" by Theresa Andrews

Luster is a Louisiana based artist who began her own career in photography in 1988 after the death of her mother. Both her mother and grandmother were photographers. One Big Self is an artwork comprising 287 4″ x 5″ silver gelatin developed out photographs on aluminum plates, stored in a steel cabinet with three drawers, and a lamp on top of the cabinet to facilitate viewing. The photographs are portraits of Louisiana prison inmates taken between 1998 and 2002. On the back of each metal plate is a personal description of the person in each photograph. The artwork is intended to be interactive, allowing the viewer to handle the photographs and read the inscriptions, seeing the subjects as real people. The metal plates are covered in paint, followed by the gelatin emulsion layer used to print the photographic image which is selenium toned. Creating these plates is very labor intensive, and Luster only manages to produce three to four plates per day. She inscribes the personal information about the inmates on the plates with a dremel tool.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) was faced with the challenging task of displaying One Big Self in the way the artist intended – as an interactive work – after it was acquired in 2003. The security and physical preservation of the photographs were the two biggest threats to the work. The piece ended up being displayed alone in a room with one museum guard on duty at all times, which seemed appropriate in the context of the artwork’s subject matter. It was decided that only 200 plates would be displayed at any time, and twenty portraits were randomly selected to never be displayed. The plates that have been on display have indeed seen changes. Some plates have been caught in the drawers and become bent, edges of the emulsion on some plates have been abraded, and some of the plates have yellowed. Although the artist is dismayed at learning about the yellowing, the cost and time of replacing each plate as it becomes too worn to be viewed makes reprinting each portrait an inefficient solution. Out of the total 287 plates, excepting the 20 that will never be displayed, only 200 are on display at any given time, so 67 plates can still be swapped with any plates that become too damaged for exhibition.
Summary by Greta Glaser, Owner of Photographs Conservation of DC