What should happen to a damaged photographic work of art?

30 November 2017

Is reproduction a valid approach for the preservation of analogue photographic works of art: simply making a new print of a negative? That is indeed an option according to researcher Monica Marchesi, but it does require a careful prior consideration of the steps needed in the reproduction process and the underlying principles. Replacing damaged photos with new, undamaged copies is controversial within the discipline of art restoration mainly because of the unique material properties of photos. Marchesi defended her PhD thesis on Thursday 30 November at Leiden University. Her research was funded by the NWO programme Science4Arts.

French stamp from 1996 with photo of Jan Dibbets. Photo: Shutterstock / Sergey GoryachevFrench stamp from 1996 with photo of Jan Dibbets. Photo: Shutterstock / Sergey Goryachev

Photography is an influential and highly appreciated art form. A fundamental problem when conserving photos, however, is the chemical instability of the medium. A photographic work of art can therefore only be replaced with a new print if the interested parties have reached agreement about both the gains and losses associated with photo reproduction, is Marchesi’s conclusion.

Monica Marchesi examined four case studies in which artists and museums used reproduction techniques to replace damaged photographic works with new copies. The cases studied were Comet Sea 3°-60° (1973) by Jan Dibbets, the reproduction of Lalalalalight (1989-90) and Xiada (Girls’ Dorm), Xiamen (2002) by Gerald van der Kaap, all in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and Virtues and Vices (for Giotto) (1981) by John Baldessari in collection of the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven.

Marchesi: ‘In all four cases, the reproduction process was not entirely clear or obvious, but the principles underlying the production were scarcely called into question. People saw reproduction as an acceptable practice to counteract the instability of photography, which is an inherent aspect of the medium.’

‘Immaterial’ aspects

The ‘respect’ for the material aspects of an object characterised the profession of the conservator for a long time, says Marchesi. ‘Since the 1970s, “immaterial” aspects such as the artist's intention or the value that a community attributes to an object have started to play an increasingly significant role within the field of restoration. The reproduction of photographic works of art largely goes against these traditional opinions about restoration.’

Marchesi is a conservator at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Concrete cases led her to investigate a theoretical framework with practical tools. In 2011 and 2012, Jan Dibbets and Gerald van der Kaap complained about the state that some of their photographic works were in. The artists' opinion was that their works had become unsuitable for exhibiting. They suggested making new prints.

Marchesi: ‘That raised all sorts of questions for me, for example about material authenticity and the role of the conservator in the museum. Furthermore, this practice clearly exposed which dilemmas a conservator can experience in dealing with living artists, who have clear and strong opinions about what their creations must look like, how these must be represented, and how these should be conserved.’

One of the things the researcher did was to construct a Stakeholders Identification Model. That is a concrete instrument that enables conservators and other museum staff to identify and state  the people who are involved in the decision-making process for a restoration treatment. Marchesi's research is an initial exploration of a complicated but very current problem.

Further information

Monica Marchesi (1971) completed her doctoral thesis ‘Forever Young. The Reproduction of Photographic Artworks as a Conservation Strategy’ at Leiden University with NWO funding from the Science4Arts programme within the project ‘Photographs and Preservation. How to save photographic artworks for the future?’. Her supervisors were professor Kitty Zijlmans and professor Pip Laurenson (Tate London, Maastricht University) and her associate supervisor was Dr Helen Westgeest.

Project of Kitty Zijlmans in project database

Source: NWO