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Wednesday, May 31 • 10:30am - 11:00am
(Photographic Materials) Uncovering Irving Penn's Chemical Treatment Techniques

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Irving Penn printed a series of gelatin silver photographs in 1949 and 1950, titled the Nudes. Regarded as a departure from the smooth, sleek forms and thin models of his fashion photography, these photographs were a chance for Penn to revel in the material possibilities of the medium. In particular, Penn was intrigued by how the photographic image could be manipulated in the darkroom to produce variable densities, ranges in image tone, and even alteration of the gelatin binder. Available sources suggest he used non-standard chemistry, specifically a bleach-and-redevelopment technique, which produced the unique visual characteristics of the Nudes. However, these sources, as well as the photographer's archival records from the series, include very little technical information about his process. This research was undertaken in the hopes of discovering the cause of the material modifications Penn brought about in this body of work. This paper presents the findings of research into possible darkroom methods used for the Nudes series.

The available art historical literature on Penn proposes a bleach-and-redevelopment process, and offers a citation for the photography manual from which Penn and his printer drew their recipes. Using this as a starting point, several hypotheses were developed for potential bleaching procedures. These hypotheses were further refined after a survey of the Nudes in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and following an interview with the printer, now in his 90s, who worked with Penn on the Nudes. The hypotheses sought to explain both the general technique and the specific chemistry that was used. Ultimately two bleach-and-redevelopment process were tested, as well as one process using bleaching alone.

This paper outlines the evidence in favor of each of these three darkroom techniques, including historical information, the chemical mechanisms of each, and the results of replication experiments which have been performed for each process. Preliminary XRF measurements are also presented. XRF has shown potential as a method for identifying certain bleach-and-redevelopment treatments whose chemistry may leave elemental markers in the finished print, possibly in the form of non-silver image material. Tentative results will be presented, as well as areas for further exploration. The research conducted thus far has contributed to a more complete material understanding of the Nudes series and is an example of how such work can complement art historical investigation.

avatar for Laura Panadero

Laura Panadero

Paper Conservation Fellow, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies
Laura Panadero is the Craigen W. Bowen Paper Conservation Fellow at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums where she works on photographic materials, prints, drawings, and albums. She graduated in May 2017 from New York University's Institute... Read More →

Wednesday May 31, 2017 10:30am - 11:00am CDT
Michigan 1A-B Concourse Level, East Tower