Preserving a Giant: Treatment of a 19th-Century Photograph
Wild West: Plains to the Pacific, now open at the Legion of Honor, includes a spectacularly large photograph from the Museums’ collection, taken by Howard Clinton Tibbitts (1863–1937). Tibbitts was a San Francisco–based photographer who documented the American West for the Southern Pacific Railroad’s magazine Sunset, still published today. This photograph from 1899 depicts members of the U.S. Cavalry’s Troop F, who were charged with the protection of Yosemite from 1883 until 1916.
When the photograph arrived in the Museums’ paper conservation lab, it was warped, discolored, had large stains and tears, and was adhered to a thick acidic paperboard. The first step was to remove the paperboard.
We used long Teflon spatulas to mechanically remove as many layers of the board as possible, and then added water to help remove the remaining layers. Water is one of the main tools for treatment in paper conservation; stringent testing determines if its use will be safe for an artwork.
We sprayed the photograph with a fine mist of water to allow the fibers of the paper to adjust to the moisture. We then immersed the photograph in a sink of filtered water. This process pulls out unwanted and harmful acidic components, brightening the photograph. After the bath, we used other Teflon tools to remove the remaining paperboard layers while the photograph was wet. The water softened the adhesive and paper layers, making them easier to remove.
The stains were then reduced through a bleaching process, and the tears were mended with Japanese paper, which is thin but incredibly strong, and wheat starch paste, a common paper conservation adhesive. The original historic frame was found in storage and reunited with the photograph. See the final result on display in Wild West.
Anisha Gupta is completing her final year of study at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. In September, she will start as the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Paper Conservation at the Fine Arts Museums.