In the 19th century, union cases were used for holding, displaying or carrying a daguerreotype, the earliest photographic process. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)
In the 19th century, union cases were used for holding, displaying or carrying a daguerreotype, the earliest photographic process. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

Behind the Scenes at the Center for Creative Photography

Conservators such as Jae Gutierrez treat UA photos with tender loving care, making sure the materials will be available to future generations.
March 7, 2016

An unframed, black-and-white photograph of Jae Gutierrez is tacked up on the wall behind her desk. A colleague snapped it a couple of years back. 

Gutierrez herself isn't prone to shooting photos, but when she does, she says they're mostly of family. She is more interested in preserving them. Gutierrez is the Arthur J. Bell Senior Photograph Conservator at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography.

"As a conservator, it's my responsibility to preserve photographic materials and ensure they're available for future generations to learn from — be it through exhibitions or for researchers or for UA classes that are coming here for print viewings," Gutierrez says.

"Ideally, preservation is about how we provide the right environment, the right handling guidelines and the right display guidelines to ensure that photographs are accessible but not damaged during access."

The center's photographic collection is vast, numbering over 90,000 fine prints and approximately 5 million archival objects. Photographs by Ansel Adams, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Imogen Cunningham, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Barry Goldwater, Aaron Siskind, Garry Winogrand and Mildred Mead make up only a tiny fraction of the collection.

So, conservation is essential.

Conservators typically specialize in preserving a specific kind of object: paintings, furniture, books, textiles, sculpture, electronic media and, of course, photographs.

"What conservators do is get to know the materials in their discipline to understand how those materials might age and change over time, and if they're damaged, we might be able to repair them," Gutierrez says.

That's why when it comes to preserving photographs, Gutierrez is especially interested in plastics. Plastics have been used throughout the history of photography. Some are used to support photographic images, some are used to mount photographs on, and others are used to hold photographic images.

In fact, back in the 19th century, union cases — cases molded from sawdust, shellac and dye, and formed under high heat and pressure — allowed people to hold, display or carry with them a daguerreotype, the earliest photographic process.

"Union cases provided a way to protect these very fragile images that were easily scratched and abraded and easily tarnished by pollutants in the atmosphere," Gutierrez says. "Cases provided an early preservation technique that created a microenvironment to keep these photographs safe."

However, the type of photographic plastic with which people probably are most familiar is the film used for negatives, Gutierrez says. The earliest film used to support photographic images is a plastic known as cellulose nitrate. Cellulose nitrate deteriorates over time and is very flammable, which is why film manufacturers switched from producing cellulose nitrate to cellulose acetate in the mid-20th century.

Gutierrez says for some photographic negatives, the only way to preserve them is to put them in a cool, dry dark environment, where deterioration is slower compared with what would occur at room temperature.

"Ideally for film-based collections, you would have a freezer," Gutierrez says, and that is what the center has.

"We have a walk-in freezer that’s kept at 22 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent relative humidity," she says. "It's really important that you not only control the temperature but you control the humidity, because it's temperature and humidity that will drive these deterioration processes. Every 5 to 10 degrees that you can reduce your storage environment temperature, you expand the lifetime of your film-based materials."    

Lately, the use of transparent acrylic supports has been on the rise to create face-mounted photographs. Face-mounted photographs, often large, are photographs in which the image side of a photographic print is permanently adhered overall to an acrylic sheet.

"As conservators, we have to care for that plastic surface," Gutierrez says.

Photograph conservators must become knowledgeable not only about the photographic image but about the kinds of acrylics and adhesives used to affix photographs to acrylic surfaces in case repair or restoration is needed.

As a matter of fact, working with acrylic, flexible films, resin-coated papers and other photographic plastics will be discussed March 16 and 17 during the "Plastics Associated With Photographic Materials" symposium on the UA campus. The symposium is hosted and organized by the center's conservation department in collaboration with the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Conservators, conservation scientists and members of the UA community will be in attendance. There is a special registration rate of $50 for UA affiliates. 

"Conservation is important because the field's goal is to preserve cultural heritage," Gutierrez says. "Photographs tell us about time, history and events and allow us to understand our history, others' history and each other better."