Unrolling the collectionOctober 14th, 2021 By Madeleine Ross and Siobhon Moore
Madeleine Ross and Siobhon Moore take us through the treatment process they designed for safely flattening panorama photographs stored in rolls.
Panoramic photo prints in the Turnbull collections
Within the Alexander Turnbull Library’s substantial photographic archive there are a large number of panoramas, both negatives and photographic prints.
Panorama photographs capture a horizontally elongated view, often using a lens that rotates from one side to another during the exposure using a Cirkut camera. You can watch a short video of photographer Benjamin Porter demonstrating its use. These panorama prints, large in size, have an added layer of difficulty when it comes to handling and storage.
Photos waiting to be described and added to the catalogue
While visitors and researchers are familiar with our processed collections, the library, like many other institutions, has a backlog of unprocessed collections. Limited time and resources along with the development of appropriate treatment and expertise are some of the reasons why these collections still await accessioning.
When undertaking treatments to process items we want to ensure that we are doing everything we can to guarantee that they are receiving best practice care. At times this means leaving items unprocessed until we can commit the right type of resources and time to ensure they are able to be safely accessed by staff, researchers and curious minds.
Let the good times unroll
In May 2021 a project was undertaken to begin flattening a group of unprocessed panorama photographic prints. These prints were donated to the library having already been rolled into tubes for storage and have been awaiting conservation treatment in the Turnbull collection stores.
Prior to treatment, the prints were unable to be viewed or accessed by either Turnbull staff or researchers, as they had been rolled for so long they had taken on that shape and become difficult to handle without risking physical damage.
Due to their condition they were unable to be fully described by the Arrangement and Description team and therefore did not have catalogue records or had only scant records. This meant that researchers were unable to discover or find them on the Library’s unpublished collection database, Tiaki.
Long-term preservation through conservation
The project supports the collection by increasing accessibility to the items, and their long-term preservation through conservation. Before treatment the prints were unable to be unrolled, which limits the ability to view the item. If the items stayed rolled, as they were prior to treatment, this would make the prints more susceptible to damage.
They were at risk of becoming damaged as tears and cracks can form on the rolled photographs at points of stress.
We discovered after flattening that some of the prints would also benefit from additional cleaning as surface grime had built up during the time they were stored without protection from dust.
To begin the project we first created a way to document and track our progress. Using a spreadsheet, we can input the information that is initially available about each rolled print and track its movement to the conservation lab. We use it to note what items are undergoing treatment, then to keep track of when items are transferred to the Arrangement and Description team to have a catalogue record created. Finally, we use the spreadsheet to note when an item has been placed in its new permanent location.
Initially, the information we can add to the spreadsheet about each print is minimal, being only what we can glean from the print in its rolled condition. Often this is a collection title or photographer noted on the outside, or an approximation of the image such as ‘landscape’ or ‘school photo’.
After flattening, we're able to add more specific descriptive information about the subject, date or location for each image as the whole print is revealed, some having titles and dates captioned within the image.
Conservation interventions are intended to be minimally interventive and appropriate for the materials and condition of the object to be treated.
After evaluating their condition for signs of moisture sensitivity (for example, the presence of degraded gelatin or water-soluble inks) the treatment process designed for these panoramas begins with humidifying them to sufficiently soften and make them more flexible before flattening can take place.
For specific details see AIC's wiki page on: Humidifying, Drying, and Flattening of Paper-based Photographic Material
The prints are placed inside a humidification chamber, a curved plastic dome with an airtight seal, over a tray of heated water. The water evaporating as steam increases the relative humidity inside the dome. The increased humidity relaxes the print, causing the paper fibres to soften and swell, while the gelatin in the print also swells and becomes more flexible during humidification.
This allows us to safely unroll and flatten the prints once they are out of the chamber as both the paper and gelatin are relaxed and flexible.
The benefit of the curved dome means that condensation forming on the inside of the dome will roll down the sides rather than dripping down onto the prints below.
Once the prints have been humidified in the dome for a couple of hours they are removed, ready to be unrolled. Each print is placed on a sheet of blotter then gently unrolled, a piece of Hollytex or smooth spun polyester is placed over the print to protect the photographic surface and avoid leaving a textured imprint. It is then placed under weights and left to be flattened. Once weighted down the prints are left for several days to dry flat.
Assessing the condition of each print
At this point the prints are now flat and we can see the full image for the first time.
We can expand the details we have in the spreadsheet, being able to add in dates, titles and other descriptive information now visible in the image. We are also able to fully assess the condition of each print and identify if they might be better protected and easier to understand or interpret with any additional treatment or cleaning.
Some have had a build up of dirt or surface grime which can be removed using a smoke sponge, made of vulcanised rubber, and used dry to remove the dirt.
Accessioning into the collection
Once the prints have been flattened, cleaned, and transferred into their new folders, made from alkaline buffered card support and a polyester cover sheet, they are then ready to go to the Photographs Curator Natalie Marshall.
Natalie checks the panoramas against our accession records to make sure the descriptive records on Tiaki will link with the right deposit records. She also ensures we note the provenance of the items, acknowledging the generous donors of these photographs.
It is also at this stage that she gathers any further information we have recorded about these items for the Arrangement and Description process to create the catalogue records.
Finally, the flattened prints are shelved in their new permanent location in plan cabinets in our large format store, where they are accessible within the collection, and are available to be requested and viewed by clients.
Revealing the content of the panoramas
So far as a result of this project more than 20 panorama photographic prints have been flattened. Prior to this they were not able to be viewed, either by staff or clients, because of the risk of damage in unrolling them. Now, not only are the prints available to be seen today, but they are also preserved for future generations to access.
Because they have been flattened the risk of mechanical damage like cracks or tears forming has been lessened by taking away the strain that rolling places on the print.
Through flattening we have also been able to discover more information about each print.
Example of Waiwhetu Girls’ School
For example, one rolled print had a note on the outside ‘Waiwhetu Girls’ School’. When unrolling this print it was discovered that it was not just one photograph, but three, of different year group photos of the school in 1965.
Additionally, one of our Arrangement and Description team members Dolores Hoy located her mother in one of these photographs. Prior to flattening she was unaware that this photograph of her mother was held in the Turnbull Library. She was also able to identify the headmistress and some of the teachers in the photographs, and could then relate those identified persons to other material held by the library.
This is a great example that illustrates the importance of flattening and making these prints accessible, so that connections like this can be made.
Eastern suburbs bowling tournament in 1934
Another print was simply noted as ‘R. J. Thomson’. Before flattening we had no information about what the photograph was of or when it may have been taken, and no way to find out without risking damage to the item. Now, after the print has been treated and flattened we know that it is a group portrait of contestants in the Eastern Suburbs Bowling Tournament, taken in 1934.
Because of this project that little piece of history documenting who was competing in the 1934 bowls tournament, as well as so much more about social history, is available to be seen and utilised.
Land and Income Tax Department staff photo
This is an ongoing project that will no doubt continue to reveal new and exciting items within the Turnbull collections, make those items accessible, and preserve them for future generations.
One of the first prints that was treated, a group portrait of the Land and Income Tax Department, now flattened, has a catalogue record and is discoverable on the library catalogue. Through this one item the entire process of this project can be seen, from starting with the rolled panorama print to ending with a flattened item in a new permanent location with a catalogue record, ready to be discovered.
Explore other panoramas in the collection
The library's collection of panorama photographs can be further explored on our website, including those recently made accessible by this project.
See a previous blog co-authored by Curator of Photographs, Natalie Marshall, called The Long View, which looks specifically at the R P Moore collection of panorama negatives.
This project has involved many people playing an important role in each step, most notably Natalie Marshall, Curator, Photographs, in her guidance in creating a workflow and managing the process of taking the now flattened prints and making them accessible within the collection, and Mark Strange, Senior Conservator of Photographs, for leading the conservation treatment portion of the project and sharing his wealth of knowledge with us.
Also the Arrangement and Description staff who create the catalogue records and make the items available to request, and the previous staff who contributed to the acquisition of these wonderful prints.