Nora Kennedy, photograph conservator at The Met, on the value of preserving images

At the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Kennedy explained the the role of a conservator in safeguarding photos from damage and deterioration

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe November 02, 2018 13:47:09 IST
Nora Kennedy, photograph conservator at The Met, on the value of preserving images

Photography, now a ritualistic practice for a huge populace, complete with its sacrosanct filters, features, and frames has had even the most artistically dense individual metamorphose into a fully developed consumer of images, stories and memes at times.

This is but a testament to the effect that a powerful image can have on human psyche which is why today many people are drawn to the art of photography more than ever before. This has created an opportunity to conserve centuries-old images and exhibit them as art or as documents of social histories.

At the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai, Nora Kennedy, a photograph conservator, delivered a talk on the very significance of preserving photos titled, Why Photography? Safeguarding Heritage, on 19 October, 2018 organised under the aegis of the ConservArte: Citi-CSMVS Art Conservation Project in partnership with Citi India.

Kennedy, the Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge of Photograph Conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has been working at this world-renowned institution for 27 years and has contributed to conserving photographs for over 100 exhibitions during her tenure.

According to her, “If you are a person who believes that history is important, photographs are a part of that history.”

Drawing on an exhibit at the CSMVS that reproduced Mumbai through the ages, she said that those photographs showcased the dramatic changes the city underwent and yet, funnily enough, depict so many aspects that have stayed the same. Smiling she added, “You see this museum building, and it looks essentially the same. The garden is here, just the trees are much bigger, and there is more traffic.”

Photographs have also documented rather difficult histories — the Holocaust, wars, and famines — that one would rather not look at. But Kennedy says that if we are trying to better humanity, preserving these records reminds us of those dark times which can be avoided in the future.

That said, one finds that there are certain photographs which are left undocumented. Kennedy explains that photography was introduced only in 1839, at the end of a chronological scale filled with a deep art history of sculptures, paintings and textiles that represented that millennia. This led to photographs being put to the side for a short while.

And since photographs are a part of people’s everyday lives, they are many times taken for granted.

There are some photographers who get lost in the darkness for want of proper documentation. Referring to the image that advertised her talk at CSMVS, Kennedy said, “The photographer has been listed as Unknown. We should know who that photographer is. That was an extraordinary photographer making amazing work.”

Nora Kennedy photograph conservator at The Met on the value of preserving images

Nora Kennedy referred to the photograph that advertised her talk at the CSMVS to explain how an image lives on even as the photographer fades into the darkness. Image courtesy CSMVS

These discrepancies occur, Kennedy noted, perhaps because the person who first collected it might not have jotted down the name of the photographer and as it was passed on, he got lost along the way. “This is a case where the photograph actually survives very well but the photographer has fallen to the side,” she added.

Kennedy hoped that since the picture was taken in India, someone amidst the audience would identify where it came from. Her wish was granted when a lady in the crowd said she recognised the image as clicked in one of the studios in Mumbai, the then Bombay, against that studio backdrop while the two women from Rajasthan were visiting the city.

Kennedy explained that there are two-pronged approaches to safeguarding photography for preserving heritage. She has been instrumental in conceptualising the Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative (MEPPI) and draws on the situation in the region, where engulfed in conflict, many sites and artefacts could be damaged. At such a juncture, 19th and 20th-century photographs are retrieved and protected because in some cases, that’s all that’s left. On the other hand, photographers are going into the field and digitally documenting sites. These collections will enable the people to understand and reconstruct damaged structures when more peaceful times approach.

Conservators then most times act as facilitators, she said. A photograph conservator treats damaged works, studies whether the image is a daguerreotype or an albumen print or a salted paper print, or any other and monitors environmental conditions that can affect the health of a collection.

So, according to Kennedy, even as museums make judicious decisions regarding artefacts while organising exhibits, conservators assist on factors such as exposure to light, humidity, and temperature. For instance, if there is a picture that is vulnerable to light exposure, it is exhibited only for a short while.

At The Met, along with her team of five, Kennedy is not only heavily involved with exhibitions but also works to preserve the photography collection as a whole through extensive technical research. Having witnessed crucial developments in the outlook towards photography during her tenure, she explains that when she joined in the 1990s, they were perhaps holding nine or ten photo exhibitions a year and now the number of exhibitions in which photographs are included has risen to 24.

"Photography is more and more recognised for its importance in the modern world, has taken its rightful place in art history, and that is also the reason why there are more and more exhibitions."

In her talk, Kennedy spoke about the personal value attached to collections of family photographs, that take us back in time, through several generations when we sit down to look at them. Preserving photographs thereby has personal as well as institutional dimensions.

Newspaper morgues such as one being taken on by an institution in Brazil are a mammoth task of preserving old photographs, Kennedy said. “It is a huge responsibility,” she maintains because of the sheer number of photographs and the fact that they were not made to last. Furthermore, in the analogue era, newspapers were the deepest possible documentation of international affairs but today, print is running out of fashion and digital dominates, presenting its own unique challenges.

Kennedy explained, “People have the misconception that digital helps save photographs and it actually doesn’t. It creates another body of images that one has to actively work to save.” According to her digital has given us access to collections and histories through social media and websites that weren’t available before. But as digital technology develops, preserving these files can prove to be a challenge in the future, one that will demand time and some amount of money.

“We actually say if there is an image you really care about, make a print, make it a physical object,” she concluded.

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