PMG Winter Meeting – “Photographic Paper XYZ: de facto standard sizes for silver gelatin prints” by Jennifer McGlinchey Sexton, Feb. 20

Jennifer McGlinchey started her impressive talk with an explanation of the history of lists of photographic paper sizes. She stated that there were no available references that have lists of ‘standard’ sizes. In fact, the lists of sizes they were able to find were very small, and also corresponded to very specific time periods. Further research suggests that these sizes were not considered standard and were certainly not inclusive of all sizes used. Rather than identify ‘standard’ sizes, she identified ‘common’ sizes by the criteria that they appear in five or more of the references. These she concluded were ‘de facto standard sizes.’ For the study, McGlinchey used Paul Messier’s extraordinary paper collection which consists of over 5,000 samples of silver gelatin photographic paper, as well as 9 manufacturer’s sample books and pricelists and 6 encyclopedias:
The use of English-language publications from a few geographic locations (US and Europe) may have been limiting, but in fact, there are very few references from other geographical areas. Concluding that there were common rather than standard sizes is not to say that there were no attempts to standardize paper sizes, but the attempts were never very successful. The result of the study was that she identified over 200 distinct sizes, just over half of which occurred only once. She identified 32 de facto standard sizes. Many of the sizes considered common now in the USA, such as 4×6 and 5×7 inches, are included in that list, but many sizes which are no longer manufactured are also on that list. This includes smaller sizes like 2.5 x 2.5 inch, which were much more common in early days of gelatin silver printing. She mentioned that the measurements for papers grouped together as the same size allowed for a difference of +/1 5 mm along each dimension, to account for natural expansion/contraction, ferrotyping, and so on, which could account for small dimensional changes. As part of the research they also evaluated common thicknesses of silver gelatin paper, and found three de facto standards. The most common was ‘single weight,’ followed by ‘double,’ and finally ‘medium.’ Double weight papers fall above 0.25 mm, medium weight papers under 0.25 and single weight papers under 0.2 mm. The double weight paper started get thicker in the 1930s until the 1950s and then got thinner again, so manufacturers changed the thicknesses over time but not the terminology. It was also found that five common aspect ratios occurred in 88% of the de facto standard sizes. This implies that scaling relationships were a factor for determining silver gelatin DOP paper sizes. Characterization by aspect ratio not only simplifies the dimensional diversity of silver gelatin paper by emphasizing their scaling relationships, but also highlights their relationship with other media. For example, 6:5 is common mainly with plate sizes, 5:4 is the aspect ratio of many large format films. 4:3 is the first motion picture aspect ratio and 8:5 is the golden ratio.
The measurements and other data were recorded in spreadsheets (the full results were published in JAIC, Volume 53, Issue 4 (November, 2014), pp. 219-235). It led to the conclusion that there is no easy answer to these questions. No system of standard paper sizes was successfully put in place for photographic papers. Additionally, available sizes varied widely over time and across geographic boundaries.
This research can be utilized in identification of artist’s methods and paper preferences. One useful application is to study photograms. This technique was used to great effect by Man Ray and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, contemporaries working in France and Germany respectively. Of course, each print is unique, because it would be difficult to replicate the exact condition since no negative has been used. Of a selection of 163 prints by Man Ray dating from 1920 to 1940, there were 88 photograms and 75 traditional prints from negatives. Compared with the de facto standard sizes identified by this research, the dimensions of 39 Man Ray photograms (roughly 44%) correspond to de facto paper sizes. From 75 prints from negatives, only 25 (33%) correspond to the de facto paper sizes. This survey shows that Man Ray most likely trimmed his photographs from negatives, but didn’t trim his photograms. Averaging about 3.5 mm thickness, the photograms fall into the category of double weight papers.
Man Ray’s process contrasted with the working practices of Laszlo Maholy-Nagy. Print dimensions and estimated thickness for 216 prints by Maholy-Nagy made in Germany between 1922 and 1928 were collected from the catalogue raisonne of his photograms. Of these photograms, 216 or about 89% correspond to the de facto standard sizes identified by this research. The majority of the prints made from negatives were printed on two sizes of paper, 18 x 24 cm and 13 x 18 cm, both de facto standard sizes. This shows that Moholy-Nagy used full sheets of paper for his photograms and didn’t trim them down. The catalogue raisonne describes the thickness measurements of many Moholy-Nagy photograms as single weight or double weight. According to these descriptions Moholy-Nagy used the single weight or double weight papers in equal frequencies and sometimes used both in the same series.
Understanding the de facto standard sizes provides a useful point of comparison of these two artists. Differences in their methods can be due to a variety of factors. Moholy-Nagy was known for his scientific approach to photography, as a record of the interaction between light and physical object composed within the border of the paper. His photograms were complete upon processing. In contrast, Man Ray was more acutely engaged in producing highly refined settings of expression; attention to detail and subtle manipulation apply to all aspects of Man Ray’s photography as evidenced by his skilled practices in retouching and using carefully proportioned mounts.
In summary, there really were a lot photographic paper sizes available, particularly in middle of the 20th century, when these papers were extremely popular. While there are some de facto standard sizes and thicknesses, silver gelatin papers were made in numerous sizes and the majority of paper sizes listed in the references occurred only once.

PMG Winter Meeting – "New Photo Histories in West Africa" by Erin Haney, Feb. 21

This was the final session of the 2015 PMG Winter Meeting.  Speaker Erin Haney is an art historian and co-founder/co-director of Resolution, which hosted the 2014 “3PA” workshop in Benin. During the Q&A afterward, one conservator remarked that her talk “reminds us why we do what we do.” That couldn’t be more true. She provided an exciting glimpse of family and private photograph collections in West Africa that have not been widely seen nor studied. The stewards of important West African photography collections have recently started to come together to explore strategies for their preservation as well as raising their visibility worldwide.
She began by saying that West Africa has valuable historic photographs that won’t come up on Google searches. The reason is simply that these photographs tend to be dispersed widely in private and family collections. There are very few cultural institutions, archives and museums that have enjoyed stability from the colonial era to the present day. Some institutions have lost all or part of their photographic collections in times of political upheaval. Instead, it is primarily families and private owners who have safeguarded that region’s photographic heritage.
Haney showed just a few examples that reflect the diversity of images that can be found in these collections. These include photographs made during the colonial period, the images made by the great, early studios (often now in family collections of their descendants), domestic portraits, group portraits, and events of social and political importance. There are images of the social elite and the wealthy, showing a materially rich and cosmopolitan West Africa that is seldom seen, and a history that is seldom taught. She showed a daguerreotype by Augustus Washington, who went to Liberia from the US and made daguerreotypes in cities all along the West African coast. There were photographs made by the Lutterodt family, which established a far-reaching network of family photography studios that operated from the 1870’s to the 1940’s. There were British colonial scenes, portraits by early French-run studios, portraits of West African women and their Bordeaux trader husbands, and debut portraits–young women dressed in the finest cloth, showing their readiness for marriage. More recent images included Gold Coast soldiers, independence movements, city skylines and infrastructure, and prominent political figures. These are but a few of the many treasures in these collections, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries. There is an extraordinary variety of subjects and photographic traditions.
She showed how photographs were made and remade in order to improve them and preserve them. Some photographs took on new meaning as memorial objects when the sitter passed away. These could be marked with crosses, mounted, and/or captioned by loved ones. Other photographs that had condition issues over time might be heavily overpainted to refresh them. In one case, a painting of a Dutch ancestor was remade by photographing it, in order to present it alongside a group of other family portrait photographs. The original image was not sacred. To study these collections, one has to understand how the images functioned when they were made and how they continue to function. Theirs is an iterative practice of artistry, which must inform preservation and conservation decision-making.
Of grave concern today is that these collections are at risk when the custodians feel they must sell or dispose of them to reclaim the valuable space they occupy in a private home, or generate much-needed income. Resolution communicates the importance of photographic cultural heritage to people in West Africa and around the world. The Benin workshop provided participants with the skills to document and manage their collections, while networking with others in the region working toward the same goals. The workshop involved nine countries in Francophone West Africa and is actively building partnerships and capacity to make a case for the ongoing support of photographic collections. There is a growing recognition of their critical importance for national identity, education and research. It was an inspiring end to this PMG Winter Meeting.

PMG Winter Meeting – "Cataloging Is Preservation: An Emerging Consideration in Photograph Conservation Programs" by Robert Burton, Feb. 20

“Cataloging Is Preservation: An Emerging Consideration in Photograph Conservation Programs” was the first talk of the Biannual PMG Winter Meeting in Cambridge, MA, February 20-21, 2015.  Speaker Robert Burton began with a quote from his mentor Sally Buchanan, who stated, “Cataloging is preservation.” Burton went on to show how that is no overstatement. In a sense, the goal of all conservation is to preserve materials to enable continued access to them, and there is a direct relationship between cataloging and access. Descriptive records in prescribed formats, organized under controlled headings, make photographs discoverable. This in turn sparks research interest, helps institutions identify preservation priorities, and even helps them organize storage more efficiently. Burton showed that cataloging is the foundation of a comprehensive view of collections management and preventive conservation.
A good record should answer the questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? It gives an institution administrative and intellectual control over its photographic materials. Whereas books and other text-rich objects are more self-identifying, photographs require additional data to be contextualized, and collecting this data requires a cataloger with the appropriate training.  A cataloger might be the first person to go through a photograph collection, and that person should possess visual literacy, an understanding of photographic processes, an ability to carry out basic preventive measures such as rehousing, and be able to bring objects in need of special care to the attention of conservators. Because different institutions have diverse approaches (different databases, digital asset management systems, missions, and constituents), catalogers must understand and apply data value standards to bring some consistency to searches for terms such as artists’ names, geographic place names, and so on. (Burton mentioned the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus and the Name Authority File from the Library of Congress as examples.)
Recent advances in digital recordkeeping and digital imaging have reduced the administrative burden of cataloging and have also reduced the need for over-handling photographic materials, which can result in handling damage. There are new technologies on the horizon that will help with cataloging, such as automatic captioning of newly created images, or giving photographers a way to record voice annotations as additional metadata. Nevertheless, catalogers will need to find a way to enter this information so it can be searched.
Without knowing its holdings, instititions will not be able to adequately value or safeguard their materials, nor will they be able to care for them. Uncataloged items are essentially invisible: vulnerable to loss, their condition and value unknown.
Burton acknowledged that few library school programs provide students with the opportunity to study photographic materials specifically.  He urged this audience to view cataloging as a preventive conservation method on par with environmental monitoring, housings, and the like. He traced the development of this thinking to the 2002 Mellon survey at Harvard, which in turn became the model for the Weissman Preservation Center’s Photograph Conservation Program, and then FAIC’s Hermitage Photograph Conservation Initiative. These surveys show that, by coordinating conservation, cataloging, and digital imaging, photograph collections are more accessible and in better condition. This positive trend should continue as more institutions adopt Susan Buchanan’s mindset: “Cataloging is preservation.”