My Job: Rachel Wetzel

Color photo of woman with glasses, dressed in black, wearing blue preservation gloves, standing in a lab. On a table in front of her are several framed photos. She holds one in her hands.

Conservator Rachel Wetzel with Robert Cornelius collection items. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Describe your work at the Library.

I work in the conservation lab in the Madison Building. I am responsible for assessing, treating, housing and monitoring photographic materials within the Library’s collections. I am a liaison to the Prints and Photographs and Music divisions and to the American Folklife Center. My day-to-day tasks can vary from suggesting the proper type of storage box to performing conservation treatments on photographs that are torn, degraded, broken or damaged. I also collaborate with conservation scientists in the Preservation Research and Testing Division on scientific research studies designed to identify best conservation practices.

How did you prepare for your position?

I received a master’s degree in art conservation from (SUNY) Buffalo State College and a certificate from the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at the George Eastman Museum/Rochester Institute of Technology. I was hired at the Library in 2019 after being employed at the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia for 12 years.

What have been your standout projects here at the Library?

I arrived eight months before the pandemic hit, so projects have looked very different for me from my early days on-site. In my first month, I was assigned three large collage photographs, each containing passport photographs of famous jazz musicians from the Bruce Lundvall collection in the Music Division. Each tiny photo was adhered with an undesirable adhesive to poor quality mat boards. I had to remove each photograph individually, reduce the adhesive on the verso and then remount them all to a new mat board in a safer, more stable manner.

We have a computerized mat cutter, and upon my first time using it I had to program it to cut out about 25 small openings for each photo with additional openings beneath each for the sitter’s name. It required a lot of precise measuring and patience to get it perfect. My colleagues seemed generally impressed with my ability to master this software and produce this mat. I was just relieved I didn’t have to cut 50 mat openings by hand.

What are your favorite collections items at the Library?

I am obsessed with 19th-century photography from Philadelphia, and the Library’s abundant collection of this was a huge factor in my decision to work here. One particular object that stands out is an album in P&P titled, “Views of Old Philadelphia, Collected by Joseph Y. Jeanes.” The album contains salted-paper prints and cyanotypes of the city, many taken by photographer Frederick de Bourg Richards in the mid-19th century. Each photograph was carefully compiled, and together the images capture the essence of the city in the most beautiful way.

De Bourg Richards was a daguerreotypist who started around 1849. He took a number of street views at a time when the rest of the city was focused on portraiture. More peculiarly, he photographed other earlier daguerreotype street views made by William G. Mason in the early 1840s and reprinted them in paper formats as part of this series. The concept of photographing the photograph this way is alluring, so this album is high on my list of research projects in the near future.

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Robert Cornelius and the First Selfie

Robert Cornelius, a Philadelphia photographer, is believed to have taken the world’s first self-portrait — the first selfie — in 1839. The Library, which already had the world’s large collection of his work, in December acquired a donation from Cornelius’ great-great-grand-daughter, Sarah Bodine, of more of his photographic materials. Preservationists are now at work on the new donation.

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