Hurricane Sandy caused flooding of gallery storage areas in New York and elsewhere earlier this week. Paul Messier, a Boston-based expert on the conservation of photographs and works on paper, has worked as a consultant to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and other institutions. He also assisted museums and historical societies in the Gulf Coast area with restoration efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
PDN: Have you been getting calls from New York galleries?
Paul Messier: Honestly, no. I know there was a lot of devastation in the Chelsea area. I’ve heard from other conservators about individual salvage projects. But I have not been contacted yet, which is not surprising because the electricity is still off.
PDN: What’s the prognosis for recovering flood-damaged photographic prints?
PM: It’s highly dependent upon the photo process. Some photographic processes or more resilient than others. It’s also highly dependent upon the duration of the exposure to water, and it’s highly dependent upon the response. For example, things moved into freezer storage while still wet would have a much better prognosis for successful outcome.
PDN: Can you describe the process for saving a water damaged photographic print?
PM: The ideal scenario is to remove the material from any framing or matting that might be expendable that also might be wet. If the object can be allowed to air dry in dry, circulating air, then that has the best chance for a 100 percent recover.
Realistically, when you are dealing with large number of objects–many of these galleries have photography as well as other works of art on paper–you may not have time or space to do single item recovery. You may have to act on many objects at one time. The best technique in that situation is to move things into freezer storage. That buys you a lot of time. You can go back [later] and remove objects one by one and give them the attention they need to bring them to a dry state safely.
Not every gallery has a disaster plan, and not every gallery has the expertise to get it together in a short period of time. Time is really the enemy. The more time goes by, the greater the chance that material will not be recoverable in any way. Especially in terms of its functioning as work of art. If the work is purely archival, and valued only as information, then a lot of these techniques are effective.
PDN: Are you saying that their value is compromised as works of art, even if they are saved?
PM: Yes, that’s a real problem: having it go through a flood and different drying steps and then come out on other end unscathed as an object in pristine form–that’s extremely challenging.
Under these circumstance, I would be very pessimistic. There are ways to store things, buy some time. but in the end if the goal is to bring something back to pre-flood condition, that’s a very tall order.
PDN: Does it make a difference if the water is dirty?
PM: Yeah, it would, but “dirty” is a broad category. There were all kinds of petrochemicals in [post-Katrina flooding] in New Orleans that would have an adverse effect on any material. There are other factors, like dirt and grit. If you have to stack objects, one on top of the other, and they get full of dirty, gritty water, you can get abrasion of emulsion. That’s an object that can be dried out successfully, but that abrasion is going to be a problem in maintaing value.
PDN: Is it possible to “wash” the prints damaged by contaminated water, or is the only option to dry them and hope for the best?
PM: If you have just one or two objects, the recovery process could involve washing them in clean water, and [dissolving] out the contaminated water. That would be ideal practice. I just don’t think that, given the circumstances in Lower Manhattan right now, there will be a lot of opportunity for ideal practice.
PDN: You’re not sounding optimistic.
PM: I’m not. That’s fair to say. It’s a terrible disaster.
PDN: Which photographic processes lend themselves best to restoration from flood damage?
PM: A traditionally made, fiber-based, black and white silver gelatin print that has not been mounted–the odds are greatest that that material will weather this kind of damage. Other processes have high levels of solubility in water: ink jet prints, for example. Many ink jet prints will bleed when contacted with water. that’s on the end of the spectrum when no recovery is possible. There are some ink jet prints–pigment based prints–that may be able to sustain this kind of damage. Dye-based prints are a guaranteed total loss.
PDN: What about platinum and palladium prints?
PM: I would put them somewhere between [silver gelatin and inkjet prints]. Those metals are extremely inert. But there’s no emulsion on those prints. It’s just a bare piece of paper, that would be highly absorbent of any water it’s put into contact wit. If that water is contaminated, or if there’s a bleed from other materials–maybe storage boxes with dyes that bleed–those contaminant in the water would be absorbed right into that paper.
PDN: After Hurricane Katrina, were you able to save photographic prints in New Orleans?
PM: Because the recovery effort couldn’t take place until a week to two weeks later, there was almost nothing we could save. A few things did make it to freezer storage, and could be saved. But most of remained wet, temperatures increased, and mold set in.
PDN: How much time do gallery owners in New York have to get prints into the freezer?
PM: That depends on the photographic process, and a lot of other factors. I think a lot of art pros down there [in Lower Manhattan]–gallery owners, gallery directors–they will know once they see the material almost immediately that there’s probably no hope for certain objects. They would also know when a recovery effort is warranted. If you see damage to the surface, there’s nothing to be done at that point. The best drying situation in the world is not going to recover that object.
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