By ANDREW ROBB
Between 1905 and 1915, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) traveled throughout the Russian Empire and produced a collection of more than 2,000 photographs documenting the nation and its people, including views of cities, villages and waterfronts, architecture, historic artifacts, public works, industry, agriculture and people. His goal with these image was to educate schoolchildren throughout Russia about their country.
The photographs are noteworthy not only for what they record but also as one of the early examples of color photography.
Prokudin-Gorskii produced 14 albums that contain 2,434 monochromatic photographs made from the glass plate negatives; 710 of these prints do not have a corresponding negative in the collection. Most of these prints are gelatin printing-out photographs, and they have a distinctive warm brown appearance. These prints were made from the red separation of the glass plate negative.
In 1993 Maria Nugent, a senior book conservator (now section head of Single Item Treatment), treated the albums. The original post-binding structure did not allow the rigid album pages to turn easily, and many pages were detaching from the binding. In addition, the edges of the album pages had losses and tears. Many of the pages were dirty. Ms. Nugent removed the album pages from the inadequate binding. She then dry cleaned the album pages with vinyl erasers and inserted losses in the pages with toned Japanese paper. Once the album pages were treated, a linen cloth extension was attached to the binding edge and new post-binding structures were made for each album. The linen cloth extensions allow for the pages to lie flat when the volume is open. This made the digitization process much more straightforward. Barbara Lemmen, a contract photograph conservator, removed the discolored, pressure-sensitive tape found on some of the photographs in these albums. The photographs were then reattached to the album pages using wheat starch paste.
Prokudin-Gorskii used glass plate negatives, rather than film to capture images in his camera. Glass plates were the predominant negative used during the 19th century, and they continued to be used into the early 20th century. While film negatives were beginning to be used at the turn of the century, they did not become the most common type of negative until after World War I. The most obvious disadvantage with using a glass negative is its fragility. In addition, the gelatin emulsion can be scratched and may also detach from the glass. All of these types of deterioration were present in this collection. In addition, the gelatin emulsion can be damaged by water. This is typical of any glass plate collection, especially one that has been moved often. By 1922 Prokudin-Gorskii had moved from Russia to France via stays in Norway and England. It is remarkable that so few items were damaged in this process.
The examination, rehousing and treatment of the collection was overseen during 2000 by this writer. Each of the 1,903 glass plates were examined to determine the condition, treatment and rehousing needs of each negative. Approximately 150 of the glass plates do not have corresponding prints in the albums. Most of the negatives did not require treatment and were housed in card sleeves that pass the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). The PAT is a testing method described in a national standard that determines whether a housing material will cause harm to a photograph. High-quality housings are an important part of preserving a photographic collection.
Cracked or broken plates were placed into custom made housings that securely held the pieces together. Martin Salazar, Ingliss conservation fellow, designed the housings for 75 plates that needed this type of housing. While treatment options do exist for re-adhering broken plates, it was not undertaken as part of this project. It is hoped that the digital scans will serve as adequate surrogates so that future handling of the glass plates can be kept to a minimum.
A small number of glass plates were treated for flaking emulsion. This appears to have been caused by the exposure to water during storage before the collection's arrival to the Library of Congress in 1948. This treatment involves reattaching the flake to the glass. Before the flakes can be adhered, the flakes must be relaxed using a local application of moisture from a specially designed ultrasonic humidifier. Once relaxed, the flake can be re-adhered to the glass with a resin in solvent. The resin is safe to use with photographs, and a solvent is used to minimize exposure to water. Treatment was complicated because these areas had been weakened by the water.
The Prokudin-Gorskii Collection is an excellent example of how preservation and access can be undertaken to the benefit of both missions. Conservation rehousing and treatment ensure the long-term preservation of the collection. Damaging and inadequate materials have been replaced with longer lasting, safer housings. Deterioration has been stabilized and treated. In addition, these measures allowed for the safe handling of the collection during digitization. Digitization allows the Library to realize Prokudin-Gorskii's dream: the opportunity to see these images of Russia in color across the world. In 1911 Prokudin-Gorskii stated, "By fixing on light-sensitive plates the creation of artistic inspiration in all the richness of its hues, in all the charm of its color, with all the subtleties of individual talent, we convey to posterity a valuable document."
The work in the Conservation Division will ensure the preservation and access of this document for generations to come.
Mr. Robb is a senior photograph conservator in the Library's Conservation Office.