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Historic preservation

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Winterthur/UD grad students learn and apply skills to preserve Talladega College photographs

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​Professor Debra Hess Norris, right, works with students, from left, Riley Thomas, Victoria Kenyon and Maria Julia Costa. ​

Gazing through a magnifying visor, Riley Thomas examined a faded, scratched and visibly dirty photograph. A first-year graduate student in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), Thomas said she knew she had her work cut out for her. And the clock was ticking. Thomas’ task was to preserve this 100-year-old image and five more photos — just as damaged — during a three-week, all-day class in photograph conservation. Each of her classmates gathered in a lab at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library had five or more photos to preserve.

On that same January afternoon, more than 800 miles away at Talladega College in Alabama, librarian/archivist Perry Trice was restless as he cataloged a stack of materials in the college library. A few months earlier, Trice had painstakingly bubble-wrapped and packed 130 historic or rare photos and express shipped them to the Research Building at Winterthur. He knew that the conservation work would begin that day and he couldn’t help but feel anxious. These photographs are precious to him, and to the college he loves.​

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Talladega College staff members Perry Trice (left) and Kimberly Jacobs hold the preserved photograph collection after restoration by graduate students in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. ​

Representing the earliest days of Talladega, a 156-year-old, historically Black college, the images provide insights into what life was like for the campus community. Photos from the college farm, for example, appear bucolic but also are reminders that the institution had to be mostly self-sufficient during the Reconstruction era in the Deep South.

Thomas’ professor, Debra Hess Norris, takes a hands-on, “learn by doing” approach to teaching the class called “ARTC 657, Photograph Conservation,” which she has taught for 40 years. A member of UD’s Board of Trustees, Norris also is director of the Winterthur/UD program, one of only four art conservation graduate programs in the nation. By some estimates, half of all photograph conservators in the U.S. have been trained by Norris.​

“The students learn about the technology, identification, deterioration, and preservation of historic and contemporary photographic prints and negatives in a compressed period of time,” Norris said. “But more than any technical skill mastered, I want my students to come away from this class appreciating the importance and value of our photographic heritage.

“By preserving these images from Talladega College, our students are making a contribution to cultural preservation in an immediate and tangible way.”​

Talladega College has had several notable alumni over the years, including businesswoman Eunice Walker Johnson. Early in his career, distinguished artist David Driskell taught art at Talladega College. Trice regularly receives requests to access the college’s photo collections from researchers studying these and other individuals from the Talladega community. But, just as important, he said, are the inquiries he gets from individuals doing personal genealogy research.​​​

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person wearing mask and gloves working on a photo

​Graduate student Brittany Murray became so enthralled with the Talladega project that she is now minoring in photography conservation. ​​

On a January afternoon two and a half weeks after Riley Thomas’ first photo assessment, the energy in the student laboratory had shifted. The anxious, uncertain vibe was replaced with a methodical urgency — every action taken on a photo had to be measured and calculated, yet there were just days left to preserve this collection. Most of the students had spent the weekend in the lab and many planned to work into the evening.

Sarah Beach, a Rhode Islander who has done conservation work for the National Park Service, was deciding whether to use a solution of half-ethanol and half-deionized water to remove dirt from an image of the college infirmary. Other tools at her disposal were pure ethanol, cosmetic sponges, crumbled vinyl erasers, and soft brushes.​

For Beach, the key was identifying what the photograph was made from. In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a dizzying array of photographic processes, including daguerreotypes, tintypes and cyanotypes. The three most common print materials found in the Talladega collection were albumen, glossy collodion, and silver gelatin, explained Beach. While that narrowed things down, she still had critical decisions to make. For example, alcohol would be a logical choice for cleaning silver gelatin prints, but would be disastrous on glossy collodion.​

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​A graduate student painstakingly repairs a photograph of the Talladega Night School Class of 1896. ​​

Good photograph conservationists not only know their way around a periodic table but have hand skills that rival those of surgeons. Much of their work is done with fine paintbrushes, cotton swabs, dusting brushes, tweezers and watercolors. Many students come into the field with backgrounds in drawing, painting or photography.

Chemistry acumen, artistic ability and hand skills are all critical, but Norris also prepares her students to advocate for their profession, engage with the broader community, and find ways to use their knowledge and skills to solve pressing problems. In years past, her students have preserved flood photographs from a Texas town and World War II photos collected by W.E.B. Du Bois and owned by Fisk University Library.

On Feb. 6, the photograph collection returned home to Talladega.

“When I opened the package, I was speechless for a long moment,” Trice said. “Where before there had been cracks and creases, and images obscured by years of grime, now I was seeing extremely clean and neat photographs, pristine in archival folders with acid-free backing. But it wasn’t just that I was seeing a clean collection. It was that I was seeing the result of a dedicated group of students that had devoted a significant amount of time and effort to preserve our school’s history.”

“We are a tiny, Black, liberal arts school surrounded by cow fields and lumber mills out in the country,” Trice said. “But to partner with a school like University of Delaware, and a program as prestigious as Winterthur, I feel like we have really achieved a new level of status. It makes me so happy to think that through the work that was being done, not only was conservation being taught but also the importance of preserving non-mainstream history.”​

WUDPAC Photo Conservation Project

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​ Article by Margo McDonough, photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of Talladega College, video by Ally Quinn and Sam Kmiec
Published February 20, 2023​

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​Graduate student Brittany Murray became so enthralled with the Talladega project that she is now minoring in photography conservation. ​

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Winterthur/UD grad students learn and apply skills to preserve Talladega College photographs
Art Conservation
 
2/20/2023
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