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Professor Debra Hess Norris, right, works with students, from left, Riley Thomas, Victoria Kenyon and Maria Julia Costa.
Gazing through a
magnifying visor, Riley Thomas examined a faded, scratched and visibly
dirty photograph. A first-year graduate student in the
Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC),
Thomas said she knew she had her work cut out for her. And the clock was
ticking. Thomas’ task was to preserve this 100-year-old image and five
more photos — just as damaged — during a three-week, all-day class in
photograph conservation. Each of her classmates gathered in a lab at
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library had five or more photos to
On that same January afternoon, more than 800 miles away at Talladega
College in Alabama, librarian/archivist Perry Trice was restless as he
cataloged a stack of materials in the college library. A few months
earlier, Trice had painstakingly bubble-wrapped and packed 130 historic
or rare photos and express shipped them to the Research Building at
Winterthur. He knew that the conservation work would begin that day and
he couldn’t help but feel anxious. These photographs are precious to
him, and to the college he loves.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Talladega College staff members Perry Trice (left) and Kimberly
Jacobs hold the preserved photograph collection after restoration by
graduate students in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in
Representing the earliest days of Talladega, a 156-year-old,
historically Black college, the images provide insights into what life
was like for the campus community. Photos from the college farm, for
example, appear bucolic but also are reminders that the institution had
to be mostly self-sufficient during the Reconstruction era in the Deep
Thomas’ professor, Debra Hess Norris, takes a hands-on, “learn by
doing” approach to teaching the class called “ARTC 657, Photograph
Conservation,” which she has taught for 40 years. A member of UD’s Board
of Trustees, Norris also is director of the Winterthur/UD program, one
of only four art conservation graduate programs in the nation. By some
estimates, half of all photograph conservators in the U.S. have been
trained by Norris.
“The students learn about the technology, identification, deterioration, and preservation of historic and contemporary photographic prints and negatives in a compressed period of time,” Norris said. “But more than any technical skill mastered, I want my students to come away from this class appreciating the importance and value of our photographic heritage.
“By preserving these images from Talladega College, our students are making a contribution to cultural preservation in an immediate and tangible way.”
Talladega College has had several notable alumni over the years, including businesswoman Eunice Walker Johnson. Early in his career, distinguished artist David Driskell taught art at Talladega College. Trice regularly receives requests to access the college’s photo collections from researchers studying these and other individuals from the Talladega community. But, just as important, he said, are the inquiries he gets from individuals doing personal genealogy research.
Graduate student Brittany Murray became so enthralled with the Talladega project that she is now minoring in photography conservation.
On a January afternoon two and a half weeks after Riley Thomas’
first photo assessment, the energy in the student laboratory had
shifted. The anxious, uncertain vibe was replaced with a methodical
urgency — every action taken on a photo had to be measured and
calculated, yet there were just days left to preserve this collection.
Most of the students had spent the weekend in the lab and many planned
to work into the evening.
Sarah Beach, a Rhode Islander who has done conservation work for the
National Park Service, was deciding whether to use a solution of
half-ethanol and half-deionized water to remove dirt from an image of
the college infirmary. Other tools at her disposal were pure ethanol,
cosmetic sponges, crumbled vinyl erasers, and soft brushes.
For Beach, the key was identifying what the photograph was made from. In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a dizzying array of photographic processes, including daguerreotypes, tintypes and cyanotypes. The three most common print materials found in the Talladega collection were albumen, glossy collodion, and silver gelatin, explained Beach. While that narrowed things down, she still had critical decisions to make. For example, alcohol would be a logical choice for cleaning silver gelatin prints, but would be disastrous on glossy collodion.
A graduate student painstakingly repairs a photograph of the Talladega Night School Class of 1896.
Good photograph conservationists not only know their way around a
periodic table but have hand skills that rival those of surgeons. Much
of their work is done with fine paintbrushes, cotton swabs, dusting
brushes, tweezers and watercolors. Many students come into the field
with backgrounds in drawing, painting or photography.
Chemistry acumen, artistic ability and hand skills are all critical,
but Norris also prepares her students to advocate for their profession,
engage with the broader community, and find ways to use their knowledge
and skills to solve pressing problems. In years past, her students have
preserved flood photographs from a Texas town and World War II photos
collected by W.E.B. Du Bois and owned by Fisk University Library.
On Feb. 6, the photograph collection returned home to Talladega.
“When I opened the package, I
was speechless for a long moment,” Trice said. “Where before there had
been cracks and creases, and images obscured by years of grime, now I
was seeing extremely clean and neat photographs, pristine in archival
folders with acid-free backing. But it wasn’t just that I was seeing a
clean collection. It was that I was seeing the result of a dedicated
group of students that had devoted a significant amount of time and
effort to preserve our school’s history.”
“We are a tiny, Black, liberal arts school surrounded by cow fields
and lumber mills out in the country,” Trice said. “But to partner with a
school like University of Delaware, and a program as prestigious as
Winterthur, I feel like we have really achieved a new level of status.
It makes me so happy to think that through the work that was being done,
not only was conservation being taught but also the importance of
preserving non-mainstream history.”
WUDPAC Photo Conservation Project
Article by Margo McDonough, photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of Talladega College, video by Ally Quinn and Sam Kmiec
Published February 20, 2023
Graduate student Brittany Murray became so enthralled with the
Talladega project that she is now minoring in photography conservation.