ECPN Interview: Photographic Materials with Amber Kehoe

By Annabelle Camp posted 03-12-2020 09:14


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, Electronic Media Group (EMG), Wooden Artifact Group (WAG), and continued with Libraries & Archives. 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 third interview from the Photographic Materials series, we spoke with Amber Kehoe, Photograph Conservator, The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin
Screen_Shot_2020-03-12_at_9_01_39_AM.pngImage Courtesy of Randi Ragsdale

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. 


Last August I graduated from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation with a major in photographic materials and a minor in preventive conservation. In addition, I pursued research on the preservation of popular music culture, specifically musician archives. My interests in the field also include teaching, ethics, and decision-making methodologies. 

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


I was first introduced to art conservation in 2010 during my undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). At the time, I was a chemical engineering major working as an intern at the Tweed Museum of Art on campus. I had a strong passion for combining art and science but hadn’t found a practical career that placed equal emphasis on both. Then one day during my internship class we explored various jobs within museums, and conservation was on the list! Everything about it was completely new to me, but I remember feeling like all of the stars had aligned at that moment. I just had this overwhelming feeling that I was meant to be a conservator. I started researching degree programs that day. 

Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue Photograph conservation.


As an engineer-type, the ‘magic’ of photographic chemistry and the complexities of latent image theory were very exciting to me right off the bat. Then I learned about the continual evolution and progression of the medium which fascinated me even more. The thought of treating something that has never been treated before was really exciting to me. I would say that the final straw was when I realized the strong impression and power that photographs have on people to stir up memory and emotion, especially nostalgia. In my opinion, all of these characteristics make the conservation of photographic materials extremely challenging yet extremely rewarding. I was also drawn to the notion that photograph conservators need to have skills in all types of materials from paper to paintings and objects due to the composite and sometimes ephemeral nature of photographs. Think about it, you can print an image on just about anything these days, but is it just an image (information)? Or is it an object (material)? How can we preserve both?

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


In high school I started down a path to become a chemical engineer. By age 19 I had completed an AS in Engineering, an AA in Liberal Arts, and studied abroad at a technical school in Denmark through Itasca Community College in northern Minnesota. Then I transferred to UMD to take major courses in chemical engineering. Two years into the program I was introduced to art conservation at the Tweed Museum of Art, and my goals completely changed. I completed my junior year of the chemical engineering program on a full-tuition scholarship but gave it all up to study art history at the same university. There were no conservators nearby for me to work with, so I spent an academic year in Florence, Italy studying art history and paintings conservation at Studio Art Centers International. This was my first practical experience in the field. When I returned to the USA, I completed a summer internship in objects conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian. The following semester I graduated from UMD with a BA in Art History and minors in Art, Chemistry, and Environmental Engineering. Then I moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul and worked in visitor services at various museums while volunteering with conservators at the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, and Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC). I spent the next four years working multiple part-time jobs at museums, volunteering, and finally working as a paid technician at MACC in three of their labs (paper, paintings, and objects). During that time I applied to the Buffalo, WUDPAC, and NYU programs. I was accepted after my third application. My graduate-level internships were focused on photographic materials and preventive conservation at the Museum of Modern Art, MACC, and Heugh-Edmondson Conservation Services, LLC. 

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


As I previously mentioned, most photographs haven’t been treated before so photograph conservators need to have skills in all types of materials. At a basic level, they need to be able to properly identify photographic materials, which is sometimes easier said than done given the large number of processes and variations that have been introduced since the dawn of photography. Photographs are a complex combination of organic and inorganic materials that we know to be highly sensitive and relatively ephemeral. For that reason, I believe there are no typical or “normal” photographs. They are one of a kind because each was made by a unique individual with transient technology. In addition, no two photographs have lived the same life in terms of use, storage, and environment. Lastly, I think it’s important for photograph conservators to consider and respect the immaterial aspects of photography such as visual language and reproducibility. Exploring this facet of the medium is essential for understanding what a photograph is and what it means to society, both of which can contribute to our decision-making. 

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


Right now my interests and projects at the Ransom Center are practical and include surveys, treatments, and rehousing. My main project is performing a survey of the renowned Gernsheim Collection in order to collect data on processes, condition, housing, and cataloging. I am learning how challenging it is to design a useful survey that covers all of these topics for a collection with more than 35,000 items, but I truly enjoy the process. It is a team effort across departments, and everyone is very supportive. Outside of work, my research into the preservation of popular music culture continues today with site visits in and around Austin. In fact, Willie Nelson’s archive is just down the street at UT’s Briscoe Center for American History! I plan to do a deep dive into that collection in the near future. 

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


I think a large area or need is digital print preservation including the image files. The confluence of photograph conservation and digitization or photo-documentation is an interesting area, as well. This may include practicing digital restoration and producing facsimiles. 

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


Photograph conservation typically isn’t as treatment heavy as other specialties due to the complex and unforgiving nature of photographic materials, but it is rich in dialogue and personal connection with other professionals. For those interested, I suggest learning how to print and develop analog film and prints, looking at The Graphics Atlas website, and reading Topics in Photograph Preservation. Don’t hesitate to reach out to established professionals in the field, either. Photograph conservation may be a small specialty, but we have a large passion for outreach.