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 this interview from the Photographic Materials series, we spoke with Colette Hardman-Peavy, Postgraduate Photographic Research Fellow at the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.
How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a photograph and paper conservator originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I graduated from the Queen’s University art conservation program in 2018.
I discovered conservation after my undergraduate studies while researching what I might be able to do with my photography degree. Conservation clicked immediately, as my photography professors had been very attentive to the longevity and manufacture of the materials we used, especially when it came to digital photography and inkjet printing. I didn’t decide to pursue conservation until several years later when looking to change my career path.
Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue Photograph Conservation?
My undergraduate degree is really what pushed me to pursue photo conservation. I have always loved photography, and I couldn’t imagine working with any other material.
What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
Prior to conservation, I worked as a scenic painter and lighting technician in the entertainment industry. This work prepared me well for conservation. I had a familiarity with working with a variety of materials, and lots of repair and inpainting experience (granted not conservation grade). Once I decided to pursue conservation, I had to return to school to complete my chemistry requirements. During this time I also took courses in museum studies. I applied to the Queen’s program once my courses were complete. Queen’s was a great fit for me, since I knew I wanted to pursue photograph conservation, and the program requires you to pick your specialty during the application process. I applied to the paper, photograph, and new media stream.
I focused on photograph treatment and research during my studies. I came into the Queen’s program confident with my color matching skills and creative problem solving skills. Additionally, my undergraduate work prepared me well for working with photographic materials, and gave a basic understanding of their chemistry. As a graduate student, I held internships at The Corning Museum of Glass Rakow Research Library, and The National Archives and Records Administration. Both internships allowed me to work with paper and photographic materials, but I concentrated primarily on photographs during my time at The National Archives.
Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
I think understanding the chemistry of any of the objects we work with is important; however, it is especially critical when you work with photographs. Understanding the chemicals and processes necessary to create a photograph is essential for their preservation and care.
What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
I currently have a research fellowship at the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. My project is a full technical examination of William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature. This was the first commercially produced, photographically illustrated book. I’m very deep in learning about salted paper prints and their degradation.I'm growing my understanding and use of analytical techniques and their limitations when it comes to photographic materials. I’m also interested in modern photographs, specifically inkjet processes.
In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
I think photographic conservation needs more deep, technical research overall. The specialty is a fairly new one, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to fully understand these objects.
Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
I recommend the Photographic Chemistry for Preservation series available through the AIC site, I’ve found it incredibly beneficial. In addition to these courses, learning as much as possible about photographic processes and finding real world examples is critical. I’ve found that my prior darkroom experience has been advantageous, so if possible, take some traditional black and white, or alternative photography courses. Learning how to make the photographs you hope to conserve is critical to understanding their degradation pathway and inherent weaknesses.