Preserving Civil War photographs
Editor’s note: The Museum is currently conducting a conservation project, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, to improve the accessibility of and preserve our extensive collection of Civil War photographs. Here, the Museum’s paper and photograph conservator Carol Turchan reveals how the project started.
This Civil War photograph, one section of George N. Barnard’s panoramic view of Knoxville, Tennessee, taken in March 1864, is in pristine condition.
During the summer of 2011, a researcher contacted me requesting access to the Museum’s vast collection of Civil War photographs. The request was unusual because it was addressed to me, the paper conservator, not the Research Center. The researcher, Susan Williams, was seeking photographs by Captain Andrew J. Russell, one of the earliest to document the Civil War.
The Museum’s Civil War photograph collection is filed by subject. Finding aids direct researchers to topics such as battles, bridges, camps, and so on. These broad subjects would be of little help for Susan’s detailed search. Few Civil War photographs are attributed to a particular photographer, and to further complicate the issue, Mathew Brady, the best known photographer of the period, has received credit for most of the images. Not only did Brady employ some of the best photographers of the time from his studios in New York City and Washington, DC, but he purchased negatives and rights from photographers who preceded him in the field. Susan would have to view our entire collection, more than eight hundred views of the war, to identify prints by Captain Russell.
During her visit, Susan found this view of Fredericksburg, Virginia, from May 3, 1863. Although the mount attributes the photograph to Matthew Brady, Captain Andrew J. Russell’s signature is marked on the negative, beneath the rifle.
Susan had traveled from one Civil War repository to another in her search to locate and identify all of the work by Captain Russell. One institution recommended that she speak to me about viewing CHM’s collection. In the end, I was more involved with her project than anticipated. She planned to visit for a week in the fall when the designated research specialist would be on vacation, so I offered to lend assistance whenever and to whatever extent possible while she was here.
The assignment had an unexpected benefit: Before her time ran out, Susan viewed all of our oversized prints, approximately five hundred from flat files, and even began to look at smaller images stored in vertical files. She shared tidbits of information about the photographs with me and recognized some previously unidentified subjects, and I enjoyed Susan’s excitement at getting to look at images she had not yet seen, views unique to the Museum’s collection. Also, the degraded condition of so many of the original mounts and albumen prints convinced me that something had to be done to preserve the many photographs that were at physical and chemical risk.
These pontoon bridge views, taken by Captain Russell, were in need of treatment. The mount had suffered small tears, and water had damaged the lower portion of the page.
Reference images taken by staff prior to conservation
Months later, I received another unusual request, this one from a student at an art conservation training program. She wished to follow up her graduate work in photographic conservation with an internship at the Museum and asked if I would be willing to write an application for her for a Kress Fellowship. I immediately settled on the Civil War photograph collection for the internship project. The Museum’s proposal was selected from dozens of applications, one of only nine to be awarded a fellowship.
Next up: Meet Katrina Flores, the Museum’s Kress Fellow, and learn about her work.
The Museum gratefully acknowledges support for this conservation project from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation administered by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation.