This is a guest post by Alisha Chipman, Senior Photograph Conservator in the Conservation Division at the Library of Congress.
A panoramic portrait photograph of the Howard University training detachment taken on July 21, 1918, by the Scurlock Photo studio was recently treated in the Conservation lab. An inscription written with black ink on the glass of the framed photograph points to a member of the group standing in the back row, indicating this man is “Uncle Nelson Jordan”.
This panorama is part of the Nelson W. Jordan family papers held by the Manuscripts Division. Nelson W. Jordan (1842-1922) was born enslaved in Albermarle County, Virginia. He served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, then settled in Farmville, VA where he became a Baptist minister, married Carrie Walker (1862-1945), and had ten children. The papers span the years 1864-2003 and document the lives of the Jordan family through their collected photographs, correspondence, Bibles, genealogical information, scrapbooks, diaries, sermons, notebooks, school work, diplomas, posters, and printed matter. Nelson W. Jordan’s son, Nelson R. Jordan (1889-1958), the “Uncle Nelson Jordan” pictured here, served with the 351st Field Artillery Regiment, 92nd Division in France during World War I. He followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a Baptist pastor in central Virginia after his service with the US military.
An inscription printed along the bottom of the portrait indicates this photograph was created by the Scurlock Photo Studio. The Scurlock studio was established in 1911 by Addison N. Scurlock on U Street in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington D.C. The studio was later run by Addison’s sons, George H. and Robert S., until it closed in 1994. The Scurlocks documented the African American community of the nation’s capital for nearly eight decades, photographing portraits of prominent and everyday sitters and documenting baptisms, weddings, balls, and cotillions. The Scurlock studio also served as Howard University’s official photographer.
The appeal for panoramic photographs has existed since photography’s invention. In the late 19th century, special cameras were manufactured to satisfy this desire. The Cirkut camera was introduced in 1904 and became a popular camera for commercial photographers who produced panoramas of large group portraits and city views. The Cirkut camera could capture a 360° view by utilizing mechanisms allowing for both the camera and the film to rotate during the exposure. The film used could be 5 to 16 inches wide and up to 20 feet long! The Nelson Jordan panorama is a modest 8 inches wide by 47 ½ inches long.
The care and storage of panoramic photographs often pose challenges to collectors. Their long format can make them difficult to store flat, making it so they are often found rolled, squashed, and heavily soiled. On the other hand, panoramas are often cherished and displayed for long periods of time, which can also cause damage due to prolonged light exposure and frequent handling.
The Nelson Jordan panorama was framed and in very bad condition. The glass of the frame had shattered with large portions missing along the right side and areas of sharp glass puncturing the print. The panorama had shifted within the frame and the right side was partially hanging out of the frame and was severely creased, torn, distorted, and heavily soiled where the glass was missing. The print had suffered from water damage and spots of the print at the left side were now adhered to the glass. This can happen when silver gelatin prints are stored in contact with glass and become wet or humid, allowing the gelatin emulsion to swell and become stuck or blocked to the glass surface. There were signs of insect damage and numerous small losses where insects had eaten some of the gelatin and cellulose. The silver image material was significantly faded and yellowed overall, likely due to prolonged exposure to light and atmospheric pollutants. The left side of the print, where the water damage had occurred, had more extensive fading and yellowing. The gelatin emulsion was also severely compromised, due to the water damage and prolonged light exposure. As a result, the emulsion of the left side of the print was very sensitive to moisture and would disintegrate if water was introduced.
The first step of the treatment was to remove the print from the frame. The extensive damage demanded this be done carefully and slowly. The areas of the print adhered to the glass posed a great challenge. Separating gelatin emulsion blocked to glass is notoriously tricky and usually not a very rewarding treatment. The treatment’s success often depends on the extent of adhesion and the condition of the emulsion. In this case, the emulsion could not tolerate any application of moisture, so treatment options were limited to dry mechanical separation. A small sharp scalpel was used to separate the print from the glass with an attempt to save as much image material as possible. Thankfully, most of the adhered areas were located near the perimeter of the print and no important information was lost. It was also fortuitous that the emulsion at the right side of the print was not water damaged and thus more robust. The torn, crumpled, distorted areas of the print at the right side could be successfully humidified and flattened.
Moisture vapor was applied to the area through a porous Gore-Tex (commercially known as Teflon) membrane. Once the print was pliable, it was then flattened by drying between blotters under a thick acrylic sheet and moderate weight. The front and back of the entire print was gently surface cleaned to reduce dirt and soil using white vinyl eraser crumbs. The heavily soiled areas at the right side, where the glass was missing, were also selectively cleaned with cotton swabs moistened with deionized water. All of the tears and creases were mended with a thin long-fibered Kozo tissue adhered with wheat starch paste. The final step of the treatment was to construct a new housing for the panorama. The print was placed in a custom-made polyester sleeve with a 20 point paperboard backing to provide support during handling. The sleeved panorama is housed within a 20-point paperboard folder and stored in a flat file drawer.
This project is a good illustration of both the triumphs and limitations of conservation treatment. The project fulfilled the goal, to stabilize the panorama and house it so that it could be safely stored and preserved for access by current and future researchers. However, the outcome of conservation treatment was limited by the poor condition of the object. The extensive fading, yellowing, deterioration, and loss caused by water damage, insects, light exposure, and inadequate housing could not be reversed. Preservation is the key to longevity of collection materials! See our webpage on Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs for more information.
Be sure to come back for a future blog post about the treatment of crayon enlargements from the Nelson W. Jordan family papers!
For a similar read, see this previous blog post by Advanced Book Conservation Intern, Kathryn Kenney.
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