/// THE PHOTOGRAPHIC SURFACE (Dissertation 2023)

Between Substances and Spaces

My analysis of the photographic surface implies and pronounces its interfacial character during processes that contribute to the photograph’s becoming. The surface interfaces between substances that shape it, between times it passes through, and between spaces that it inhabits. I have proposed a framework to study the logics behind material and relational processes and their theoretical consequences for the photograph as mutative object of becoming. The long-term transformation of the photograph underlines the fact that its surface performs the image, rather than is what it depicts.

The argumentative movement I make in the structure of the dissertation starts with a close-study on and of the surface as first chapter. It introduces and shapes a material photographic thinking through highlighting and explaining a photograph’s substances, their functions and behaviours in processes that stand at the basis of each analogue photograph. Whilst the material and visual textures of the photographic surface give shape to the textures of the photograph’s subject, the surface itself does not mimic the subject matter texturally. However, the molecular make-up of the surface layer(s) - the gelatine layer holding the image forming substances, known as the silver grains (in black-and-white photographs) and the dye clouds (in chromogenic colour photographs) - does change in direct relation to the photographed subject. And something else is told by the texture of the photographic surface: indexical indications about the time in which the negative and/or the print came into being. Photographic surface textures tell their own history of provenance by being subject to technical inventions and fashions of their time of manufacture.

Still, certain theoretical analogies of the photograph with figures of the trace, the footprint, and the imprint or photographing as a form of writing, engraving, or impregnating with light proof to be misleading and insufficient. I introduced ‘the photograph as charge’. Without changing its surface texture, the photograph becomes charged (physically and visually) with the image of the photographed through the workings of light; and emotionally: the second chapter’s focus. The through the first chapter achieved holistic understanding of the analogue photograph (by focusing on the subject matter of Tacita Dean’s Crowhurst II (2007) – a giant yew tree’s bark – as much as on its physical and material characteristics – white gouache brush strokes and silver gelatin prints) enables an awareness of the many layers of interactions with the photographic surface. The spectrum of interactions is broadened from the molecular and substantial of the first chapter to the human in the second. The undulation of the glossy photographic paper of the unframed gigantic Crowhurst II as physical result from its interaction with the brushed tarnished paint demands a phenomenological approach of this case study, both when encountering it as viewer in the exhibition space as well as when writing theoretically about it. What is said specifically about it as haptic photowork opens a general sensory appreciation and comprehension of the photograph as a profound haptic object. Its material and textural qualities as highlighted in the first chapter should automatically lead our sensorial awareness to its haptic qualities that turn into affective qualities shaped by the simultaneity of touching and being touched. Though the circumstances, spaces, and relations determine certain behaviours towards photographs as either touching them in the form of a creating or cherishing gesture or as absolutely not touching them due to conservational regulations, the dissertation proofs the intrinsic haptic, physical, and affective nature of this medium.

From the light touching the photosensitive surface, the developer’s hands, movements, and solutions engulfing it, to the artistic and curatorial measures that either pronounce or neglect the photograph’s physicality through the way it is presented, framed or hung, all contribute to and confirm my concern of the photograph’s tactile nature that generates emotional responses. From a multi-sensorial perception of a photowork I move to a multi-perspectival approach that reaches out into the spaces of the photographic surface. It includes the visible and invisible parts of the photograph as this sandwich of multiple layers that are ‘pressed’ between its outer layers in relation to its surroundings and our perception. What seems to be a surface phenomenon (the image on or of the photograph) is rather the result of us perceiving an accumulation of miniscule image particles being stacked on one another on different levels within various gelatine layers. Hence, the image of any analogue photograph is created through its thickness of field, a term I coined to pay tribute to the photograph’s thickness and the depth of field created by the image particles’ position within the gelatine layers. In order to understand this material fact, I compare the photographic surface with a form of landscape, the visible outer layer that is eventually shaped by the invisible strata underneath. The fact that the case study depicted an allegory of a flat Dutch landscape that is simultaneously created and hidden by multiple paint layers provokes my landscape-analogy. Depending on our own position of perspective, our awareness shifts accordingly: what seemed invisible at first sight, turns to be visible at second sight. This shift reverberates the meanings and workings of the horizon, both literally and conceptually. Actually, the inside was never invisible, but we need the visible outside phenomena to open up a comprehensive perception of photographic sediments. Understanding the material strata of a photograph and of a photowork automatically brings us to the spaces and times in which its biography is written. This temporal layering adds to the sandwich’s material layering. The photowork’s multiple applications on top trigger other temporalities, ranging from the creation process of the photowork by the artist up to the present moment we view it, while the photograph bears visible reference to one situation in the past. All along the surface is the pivotal area where it comes together.

Through this third chapter we also understand, while the surface of a photowork is undoubtedly unique through its applications, mounting or framing, the photographic surface of any photograph appears to be as unique, even if multiple prints exist from the same negative. The photograph as much as the photowork registers, interiorizes, and exteriorizes all the temporal and local circumstances it passes through in its individual material biography. This transforming nature is deepened in the last chapter, in which all the threads of the previous are woven together in order to understand the photographic surface as a processual interface. It goes back again to its beginnings by analysing the various imaging phases through which photographs can come into existence with the help of chemical processes and human gestures. And spans the whole life path along which the photograph transforms until its fundamental deterioration (as witnessed in the chapter’s case study Russian Diplomacy (1978) by Ger van Elk) in order to show us how a static, stable ontological understanding of photographs is more than delimiting, it is insufficient. Therefore my analysis of the photographic surface as active interface while processing both inner and outer influences should be read as an imperative to acknowledge the transformative nature of each photograph and our photoworks specifically.

/// SCIENCE4ARTS Research Project 2012-2017

Photographs & Preservation: How to save photographic artworks for the future?

This research program focuses on a corpus of post 1960 photographic artworks to which different materials were added or unconventional techniques applied. Apart from the ’normal’ aging processes, mixed media photo-works are affected by specific (chemical) interactions between the different materials and between object and environment, the chemical instability of analogue photographs and the resulting irreversible degradation. All this greatly influences appearance and has serious consequences for conservation and display.

Furthermore, challenging questions are posed to conservators and art historians: what is the significance of the unusual superposition of another medium to the photograph, its subsequent aging and the differential material changes in the understanding of artworks? To cope with these complex problems of material instability, environment and historical evidence, a multidisciplinary approach is necessary that integrates Art History with Conservation Science and Chemistry. This joint approach is applied to photo-works for the first time to such an extent. The aim is to identify and examine the undesirable material interactions that affect Art History findings, conservation and thus ultimately the display and interpretation of culturally important and unique photo-works, in order to formulate a conservation strategy and proactive approach to deal with future problems.

A close collaboration between art historians, conservators, curators, chemists and artists provides the broad context in which the collaborative art historical and chemical analysis of photo-works is performed. This project will finally help to develop a Decision-Making Model to understand the relationship between the photo-work’s meaning and the changes in its physical and material features in different concrete contexts, with the combined knowledge from chemical analysis, conservation science and art theory.

The Research Team

The research consists of three inter-related sub-projects—two of which relate to PhD research, mine at Leiden University (under supervision of Prof. Dr. Kitty Zijlmans and Dr. Helen Westgeest) and Bas Reijers' at Utrecht University Utrecht (Debye Institute, Prof. Dr. Leo Jenneskens). The third sub-project will be conducted by paper conservator Monica Marchesi at the Stedelijk Museum under supervision of Drs. Sandra Weerdenburg, Head of Conservation, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Drs. Hripsimé Visser, Conservator of Photography, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Corpus of Works

The artifacts are mainly post-1960s photographic works to which different materials were applied. Included are significant works by artists such as Joseph Beuys, Jan Dibbets, Gilbert & George, Anselm Kiefer, Ger van Elk and Aernout Mik from the collections of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven and Kröller-Müller Museum, among others. Foreign museums of contemporary art and universities are making their expertise in the field available, thereby also contributing to the research.

Parties Involved

Leiden University; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; Utrecht University (Debye Institute for Nanomaterials Science); Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Foto Restauratie Atelier VOF, Amsterdam; the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg; Eyes on Media, Amsterdam; Lüdwig Museum, Cologne; Getty Museum, Los Angeles; TNO, Delft; Foundation for the Conservation of Contemporary Art; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark; Tate Gallery, London; University of Amsterdam; Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam; Eye Film Institute Nederland, Amsterdam; Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Rochester Institute of Technology, New York; De Verbeelding, Purmerend.

NWO Science4Arts

The NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) is helping to fund research projects as part of its Science4Arts program, which supports multi-disciplinary research into the conservation and restoration of art. Artworks are permanently vulnerable to change: their material compositions are affected by chemical and material processes; their physical contexts change and, with each successive generation, the viewer’s experience of works is different. Both the art object and the experience of art are thus determined by a highly complex inter-relationship of material and immaterial conditions. In theory and in practice, this influences our interaction with art objects and subsequently the views and considerations regarding degradation, conservation, restoration, and the presentation and transference of the different values. The Science4Arts research program focuses on changes in art, including the chemical and physical dynamics of the object, its meaning, its content and its context. The main focus of the project is on the collaboration between conservators, art historians and chemists who jointly research an object or related objects within the museum context. The program strives to further develop and reinforce the exchange between the research institutions and the museum sector. Two research areas are pivotal to the program: older art and modern and contemporary art. While the Netherlands plays a leading role in conservation and restoration, this program aims to strengthen and expand this pioneering position through an approach in which the different disciplines chemistry, art history and restoration are integrated.

In addition to support from the NWO, the project will receive structural contributions from:
The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE), the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, all in The Netherlands.