ECPN Interview: Photographic Materials Conservation with Courtney Helion

By Annabelle Camp posted 01-08-2020 13:39


To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in these specialties. We began the series with East Asian Art conservationElectronic Media Group (EMG) and continued with practitioners in AIC's Wooden Artifact Group (WAG). Now we are interviewing conservation professionals working in Photographic Materials. We've asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire emerging conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.

For our first interview from the Photographic Materials series, we spoke with Courtney Helion, Assistant Conservator at Gawain Weaver Art Conservation.
Courtesy of Gawain WeaverInpainting a photograph by Ansel Adams, Image courtesy of Gawain Weaver

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I grew up in the mid-Atlantic but consider myself a Baltimorean. I recently graduated from the Buffalo State program (2019) where I focused on photographic materials. Before beginning my conservation training, I studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) where I focused on traditional printmaking, papermaking, and bookmaking techniques as well as fiber arts. I enjoyed the technical aspects of those artistic disciplines and how they incorporated science with the arts. After completing my undergraduate degree, I worked at a book and art supply store, eventually managing the store. I helped artists at all stages of their careers select materials and bring their ideas to reality. This theme of art in the community has been a constant for me. In college I volunteered to draw with elementary schools students, in San Francisco I body painted women as party of a breast cancer fundraiser, and I was just appointed to the Arts and Culture Commission in El Cerrito, California. Currently, I am an assistant conservator at Gawain Weaver Art Conservation where I work on photographic and paper objects. 

How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?

When I was four, I lived on the Upper West Side. My mother loves art and often took my sister and me to museums. Museums became places of reverence, and I called my favorite paintings my "friends". I insisted on wearing my party dresses for these visits because, for me, the museums were cathedrals and palaces. Goya's "Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga" was one of these friends, so I was upset when one day it was gone. My mother explained art conservation in terms that a 4-year-old could understand. That was when I decided I wanted to be an art conservator and started working towards that goal. In high school I met my first art conservator, and MICA alumna, so I decided to apply there for my undergraduate degree.

Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue Photograph Conservation?

I have always appreciated how the advent of photography functioned as a social equalizer. For the first time in human history likenesses of loved ones and spaces were readily accessible and affordable. Several mentors taught me to love the camera, the darkroom, and the magic of capturing an image. My high school photography teachers Joe Arscott and Peggy Hartzell took me out of my comfort zone. At MICA, many of my friends were photography majors, and I watched them capture and manipulate the world around them. During my pre-program time at the Baltimore Museum of Art I worked on two major historic photograph exhibitions and enjoyed the intimacy of spending time with the works. Finally, at Buffalo I met Gary Albright, and after meeting him, I knew I wanted to be his student.

What has been your training pathway?  Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.

My training pathway started at MICA where I focused on printmaking, papermaking, bookmaking, and textiles. My senior year, paintings conservator Lance Moore offered an art conservation class; this was my first foray into the technical practice of art conservation. Upon completing my undergrad, I started my first pre-program internship at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) while taking chemistry and organic chemistry at local community colleges. This internship allowed me to experience textiles, objects, paper and paintings conservation. During this time, I was also managing the MICA book and art supply store. I completed a pre-program internship in the paper lab at the Walters Art Museum also in Baltimore, Maryland. In 2013 I started working at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco as a conservation technician.


While at Buffalo state, I met Gary Albright and knew I wanted to learn from him and formally declared an interest in photographic materials. I spent summer graduate internships at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the National Gallery of Art (the NGA), These two institutions taught me a lot about how to approach collections and the objects within the collections. I spent my internship year at Gawain Weaver Art Conservation, a private conservation studio in northern California where I worked on objects ranging from family photos, to archival negatives, to fine art prints, to government records, to objects affected by disasters. Debbie Hess Norris invited me to attend the WUDPAC Photo Block during my third year and this was a wonderful intercollegiate opportunity to connect the graduate programs in the United States.


Having hands-on training and experience making the objects I treat has been invaluable in identifying print and photographic processes and making informed decisions for the storage and treatment of those objects.

Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline? 

Photographic conservation different types of materials and the practices of other conservation disciplines. Photographs are often composite objects with a wide array of supports, protective varnishes and creative past interventions. There is a generosity of time, knowledge, collaboration, and support among those that pursue this field.

What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?

 I am fascinated by the materials that were used to hand color photographs. Photographers borrowed the materials and tools from other and I am interested in the best non-invasive ways to look at the enhanced surfaces and identify those materials. I have enjoyed exploring new and non-traditional fill materials especially when working on photographs with glass substrates.


Generally, advocacy for the arts, and people working in the arts has always been important to me. I would like to take the skills I gained as a manager and union shop steward to help give people tools to thrive in their workplaces.

In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?

 I'm pretty new to the field and I'm still learning and honing my skill set, so this is a question I am constantly mulling over. Based on the composite nature of photographs, the exploration into alternative/new fill materials could be a game changer. Photographs also exist in the special space where often the photographers were their own chemists with proprietary recipes and practices. Therefore, safe long-term storage must consider these factors.

Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?

 Take people up on their offers to help. Don't assume that offers of assistance are just politeness; they are usually sincere. Tenacity and grit are also necessary when seeking out and creating opportunities. Resources like the Photographic Materials Group (PMG) and ECPN are a good way to familiarize oneself with the field and connect to others with shared interest. Finally, visit the spaces where this work is taking place, this is a great way to see the scope of projects and make connections to those already in the field.