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Close-up view of two hands carefully at work on an aged, yellowing manuscript with handwriting
Michelle Smith from the Library's Conservation Division disbinds the autobiographical manuscript “The Life of Omar ibn Said” in preparation for further preservation treatment, June 15, 2018. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

Treating Photographs from the Nancy Pelosi Papers: A Photograph Conservation Intern’s Journey

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The following is a guest post by Emily Mercer, 2022-2023 Advanced Intern in Photograph Conservation at the Library of Congress. She is currently a third-year graduate student from the Garman Art Conservation program at The State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo State University.

During the past year as an intern in the Conservation Division, I treated a variety of photographic materials including an object from the Manuscripts Division. It comprised of two silver gelatin Developed-Out-Print (DOP) fiber-based photograph portraits of Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. and another unidentified man by Hollywood Studio. The treatment required that I apply concepts introduced in graduate school to make treatment decisions thoughtfully from the beginning through the end of the project.

Silver Gelatin DOP photographs have a three-layer structure. The primary support is a light sensitive, photographic-grade, high-quality paper covered in a layer of barium sulfate and a layer of gelatin which holds the image made up of silver particles. This paper was exposed to light through a negative with an enlarger creating an invisible, or what we call a latent, image. The final image was only made visible when it is placed in a developing solution. The print was then fixed and washed to remove the light sensitive material.

Image shows the photographs before treatment, with losses and tears.
Before treatment photo documentation. Photo: Emily Mercer, Conservation Division, 2023.


The sitter in the portrait, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., a well-known Maryland politician, was born in Baltimore, Maryland on August 1st, 1903. His roles in government included time as a delegate in the Maryland State House of Delegates from 1926 to 1933, a member of Congress in the House of Representatives from 1939 to 1947, and the Mayor of Baltimore from 1947 to 1959. D’Alesandro married Annunciata Lombardi and they went on to have six children, including Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro. Today, we know their daughter as Nancy Pelosi, a current member of the House of Representatives and former Speaker of the House. Pelosi donated some of her personal papers to the Library of Congress, which have since been cataloged as the Nancy Pelosi Papers, 1930-2012. The donation included a variety of materials including speeches, calendars, files, press material, and photographs.

Both photographs were in need of conservation due to the structural instability of the poor-quality back board causing breakage and the resulting losses in the image areas. It was important to remove the photographs from the poor-quality board to prevent further damage. I was tasked with stabilizing the photographs, removing the single remaining window mat segment between the photographs, removing the photographs from the backing board, and filling the losses.

The first step of treatment was to stabilize flaking layers of the photographs at risk of coming off immediately. These areas were consolidated with photographic grade gelatin, applied with a fine brush under magnification. Next, I removed the remaining window mat segment between the photographs by slowly shaving down the layers of the board with a metal spatula. Removing the window mat segment from the front created a planar surface making it possible for me to flip the object over and apply pressure to the back while paring down the backing board.

Once the photographs were removed from the board, I created fills for the areas of loss because they protect the torn edges of the photographs and also visually integrate areas of damage. I created the fills with an Asian kozo paper, a thin tissue made from the long fibers of the Japanese mulberry, and toned it with an airbrush using diluted acrylic paints. I chose the airbrush because it created an even matte surface that matched the photographic surface. When it was time to decide the color of the fills, I made decisions with the American Institute for Conservation’s Code of Ethics in mind. The code is a resource developed by conservators to guide ethical practice within the profession. I decided not to take artistic liberties and recreate half of the missing face but rather chose neutral colors that would allow for the viewer’s eyes to travel over both photographs in a coherent manner. My treatment resulted in fills with a color palate for the left photograph that mirrors the background of the photograph on the right.

Two images show conservation fill treatments on losses in the photographs.
Left: A large single color fill was attached to the left side of the photograph. Right: A smaller two toned fill was attached to the top edge of the phtotograph. Photos: Emily Mercer, Conservation Division, 2023.


It appears the original photographs were once over-matted. Evidence of over matting included the remaining torn segment of beveled poor quality mat board (seen in Fig.1), that was between the photographs and overlapped each photo by roughly half a centimeter.  Despite the acidity of the window mat, it protected the edges of the photographs from darkening due to environmental exposure. However, it caused the image material to oxidize, lighting the image under the over-matted perimeter creating visual differences. To recreate the original intended method of display, I attached both photographs to a conservation-grade mat board using photo corners and cut a double window mat with a beveled edge, seen below. The photograph will be housed flat in a preservation quality box with the rest of the Nancy Pelosi Papers.

Final image of the conserved photographs shows fill treatments and matting.
After treatment photo documentation of object. Photo: Emily Mercer, Conservation Division, 2023.


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