Taking a Tintype

Do you ever look at old photos and wonder what it would be like to take the photo, or to be in the photo?  Would there be blinding lights?  A stiff pose held for uncomfortably long?  Was smiling allowed?

I recently sat for a modern tintype photo at Lumiere Tintype here in Austin.  Tintypes were a popular format from the 1860s through the early 20th century.  A tintype is made with light-sensitive silver media in a wet collodion binder on a plate of tin or another metal.  Tintypes were created formally in the studio or casually on the street.  Oftentimes, they were varnished to protect the image.

Tintypes are not created from a film negative; they are one-of-a-kind.  The camera must physically hold the photo plate during exposure, and that can mean a big camera!  Here’s the camera at Lumiere.  The back of the camera is where the photographer inserts the plate.

The camera, with a bellows for focusing.

A tintype does require a lot of light, either through a long exposure or a bright blast.  Here’s where I stood during my session, with a large reflector positioned just out of the frame.  The exposure time was short, but the flash rattled my brain a bit.

From the subject’s view – that’s a lot of light!

The idea that historical photo processes took a long time is overgeneralized and not always correct.  Photographer Adrian Whipp prepared my photo plate while I waited, and then moved quickly to shoot the photo in about five minutes.  Afterwards, he demonstrated rinsing the image with sodium thiosulfate fixer, which dissolves away unexposed silver salts.

Fixing the image with sodium thiosulfate.

Last, Whipp applies a shellac-based resin varnish.  High relative humidity can create streaks and bubbles in shellac, so he works in a closed space with a dehumidifier to apply this protective coating.

Finally, here is the result.  Smiles are, in fact, allowed.

The finished tintype. Note the shallow depth of field, typical of this format.

Varias Relaciones, Tomo 1: Conservation Treatment

In Fall 2021, I’m pleased to conduct conservation treatment on Varias Relaciones, Tomo 1, a bound volume from the Benson Latin American Collection here at the University of Texas. The book was created by Joaquin García Icazbalceta, a 19th-century historian and collector who published many significant, previously unpublished manuscripts related to colonial Spanish America and the Philippines. This volume contains a variety of print and manuscript relations of journeys and events involving the Americas.  Though the contents of the volume originate from the years 1610 – 1675, the binding materials and style are consistent with work of the 19th century.

Varias Relaciones
Varias Relaciones, Tomo 1, bound in tree calf. This calfskin leather was decorated by dripping dilute acid down its surface.

Chief among condition issues for this volume is that the boards have become loose and detached, and the spine covering has separated. The treatment plan is to reestablish connection with the text block with an adhered spine tube made of Japanese tissue. While this volume was not originally bound with a tube, tubes are consistent with other 19th-century bindings. The tube will also enable reattachment with thin, strong Japanese tissue. Minimizing bulk in repair materials is important in this volume, since the boards sit very close to the spine. Excessive bulk would make it so the original covering would no longer fit around the text block.

Varias Relaciones
The volume’s front board and spine covering are detached, as are several leaves.

I’m so pleased to be working with the Benson this semester, and looking forward to the treatment.

Getting Ready for Fall 2021

Mold remediation is a common preservation challenge, and students in my INF 385T Disaster Planning and Response class get to practice their mold response skills. Here’s a peek behind the scenes as we prepare for our Fall 2021 students. This mold chamber allows test samples of archival materials to grow mold in a high-relative-humidity environment. After several weeks, these materials will be dried in a silica gel enclosure to ensure the mold is inactive for use in class. Students will also practice working with the right PPE, or personal protective equipment, to do the job safely.

I look forward to welcoming our fall students soon!

Mold chamber
This mold chamber shows the less-than-glamorous side of course preparation.

Sink Mat for an Architectural Photograph

During the spring semester of 2021, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a late-19th century photograph of the Ellis County Courthouse, designed by architect James Riely Gordon. The photograph comes from the collections at UT’s Alexander Architectural Archives. Here, I summarize the rationale and outcomes of the conservation treatment.

For more, see my previous post on treatment examination.

iSchool Preservation Clinic

Join the UT iSchool on Saturday, 4/24, from 10 – 11:30 AM, to learn how to safeguard your family treasures. Members of the public are invited to schedule a one-on-one, online consultation with a preservation professional. Bring your special items – books, documents, photos, or otherwise – to discover how to help your keepsakes live on for future generations.

RSVP and schedule your consultation at: www.ischool.utexas.edu/events/253. This event is part of Preservation Week, an annual event hosted by the American Library Association.

Earthquake!

In INF 385T, Disaster Planning and Response, we explore disaster preparedness and recovery for cultural heritage collections impacted by flood, fire, mold, and more. Here, we use a shake table to simulate two earthquake storage strategies for artworks of varying shapes. The artworks featured here are played by a set of Duplo blocks.

An introduction to our earthquake demo in INF 385T, Disaster Planning and Response.

Read more about the earthquake storage strategies highlighted in this video:

Agbabian, M.S., Ginell, W.S., Masri. S.F. and Nigbor. R.L. “Evaluation of earthquake damage mitigation method for museum objects.” Studies in Conservation 36 (1991) 111-120. 

Emergency Salvage of Family Treasures

In the historic winter storm impacting Texas and much of the US this week, many of us have encountered water disasters. Burst pipes and thawing ice can pose serious damage to family treasures. Remember to lift your valued keepsakes up off the floor to minimize water damage. Even a few inches of elevation can make the difference between preservation and loss.

For more tips, please see our UT iSchool salvage page.

Treatment Examination: Ellis County Courthouse Photo

In Spring 2021, I’m pleased to perform conservation treatment on a late-19th century photograph of the Ellis County Courthouse, designed by James Riely Gordon. This item comes to us from the Alexander Architectural Archives here at UT Austin. The Ellis County Courthouse was a signature achievement in Gordon’s career designing Texas county courthouses. Construction required two million bricks, “160 car loads of Texas granite, 100 car loads of Pecos red sandstone, used in trimming the building, and 14 cars of iron”1.

The Alexander Architectural Archives seeks stabilization for this photograph, which has high use for scholarship, historic preservation, and display. The first step in treatment is detailed examination that will inform decision-making. The item consists of a silver gelatin print mounted to backing board. While the photo is in good condition, the backing board is acidic, with cracks and losses typical of backing boards of this era.

Stay tuned for more on the rationale and techniques that go into this treatment.

Item examination using Optivisor magnifiers (on my head).

1Meister, Chris (2011). James Riely Gordon: His Courthouses and Other Public Architecture. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press. p. 130.

First Day of Class

Spring 2021 has arrived, bringing with it the start of two very hands-on courses: Introduction to Paper Conservation and Disaster Planning and Response. For both courses, workspace set-up is critical. Here, you can see my space: a laptop for my syllabus and class notes; a desktop for Zoom and Canvas; and an overhead webcam for hands-on demonstrations. Now, if only I had an on-air producer to run this show!

Remote teaching
Ready for the first day, Spring 2021.

Preparing for Spring

As the fall semester draws to a close, I’m in the lab today packing supply kits for my upcoming spring classes: Introduction to Paper Conservation and Disaster Planning and Response. Here’s a peek behind the scenes of remote learning. Looking forward to seeing you all in January!

spring supply kit
Packing supply kits for spring. Those folders are full of pre-cuts and practice materials, organized by week.