Arsenic and Old Photos
IF you are even a casual visitor to the pawn shops and junk emporiums that make this city a scavenger’s paradise, you might have run into him: a burly, dark-bearded man with a thick Czech accent and a certain glow in his eye as he riffles through the boxes of castoff photographs.
His name is Dusan Stulik, and his appetite for old pictures is not sated by secondhand bins. He wants them from you too, from your old family albums and rubber-banded shoeboxes, from your Aunt Mildred the pack rat and your Uncle Milt who turned the shower into a darkroom. He wants essentially everything you no longer want: snapshots, portraits, photo-booth strips, art-school experiments, even passport pictures.
“Whenever I meet someone,” Mr. Stulik said, grinning, “I say, ‘Do you have something that I need?’ ”
Such questions tend to make people inch away, but Mr. Stulik doesn’t pay much attention. He is on a mission, one that has nothing to do with what the pictures he collects depict. He is interested only in what they are made of: the papers, chemicals and metals that constituted the richly varied physical world of photography for about 170 years, until the rise of digital cameras and printing a decade ago began to render it obsolete.
For the last few years, in an underground lab at the Getty Conservation Institute here, Mr. Stulik and a group of assistants have been working on what might be described as the genome project of predigital photography: a precise chemical fingerprint of all the 150 or so ways pictures have been developed since an amateur scientist named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made what is believed to be the first one on a piece of pewter near Chalon-sur-Saône, France, in 1826.
Since that time photographs have been printed using a mind-boggling array of materials, some of them highly fragile: bitumen (mineral tar), albumen (egg whites), potato starch, collodion, salt, mercury, silver, gold, platinum and even uranium. (Mr. Stulik, trying recently to unsettle a visitor to his lab, pulled out a hand-held Geiger counter to prove that one print in his collection did indeed contain uranium. The device chattered like a chipmunk.)
Mr. Stulik, a senior scientist at the Getty, has long been a detective in the chemistry of the art world, mostly in the realm of painting. But in 2000 he and several other conservation scientists gathered in upstate New York to talk about what they saw as an impending disaster in photographic conservation and scholarship: the abandonment and loss of many decades’ worth of information about traditional photos as the switch was made to digital.
Some of that information has long been lost in the weeds of history, left there by innovators who experimented with exotic chemicals and papers and left little record of what they were up to. Many traditional film and paper companies have also gone out of business over the years, taking their trade secrets with them. But now, as every major photographic company rapidly shifts into digital imaging, they have little incentive to keep track of detailed data about products that no longer turn a profit, many of which haven’t even been sold in years.
Last year alone Nikon and Canon announced plans to slow or stop development of film cameras. Konica Minolta recently ended film and paper production altogether. The real alarm bell rang for Mr. Stulik when Kodak announced in 2005 that it would stop making its beloved black-and-white photo paper.
Employing maybe only a little of his characteristic hyperbole, he compares this shift to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which quickly consigned hand-copied and illuminated manuscripts, and many of the techniques used to create them, to irrelevance and historical oblivion.
Mr. Stulik has appointed himself to make sure that does not happen this time, and it would be difficult to cast a more charismatic scientist-savior. Reared in Prague, where he began dabbling with chemistry as a teenager, he still bears the tattoolike scars from a test-tube experiment that went bad and blew up in his right hand, leaving glass shards embedded there to this day.
“I was young scientist trying to do something,” he said in his clipped English, and shrugged. “I survived.”
When he began the photo project, working with the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, chemists from California State University and a group of French conservation scientists, Mr. Stulik realized that in addition to trolling the world’s great museum collections, he needed examples of long-discontinued consumer papers and films that were probably collecting dust in the millions of ordinary photo collections in people’s homes across the country.
And so the Getty put out a clarion call on its Web site (getty.edu/conservation) and elsewhere, deputizing citizens as part of the scientific front line. “Surprisingly, the large photography companies — Kodak, Ilford, Fuji, Polaroid and Agfa — did not save samples of the hundreds of different films and papers they developed over the last century,” the appeal stated. “We’re hoping that you did.”
Since the request went out last year, the Getty lab has received hundreds of examples of films and photos, including some very old ones, like an albumen print probably from the 1850s. But there are many more things Mr. Stulik continues to hope for, like old stereo photos, cibachrome materials, Velox paper and pre-1940s Kodachrome slides. (It turns out, he said, that the colors of Kodachrome, as celebrated by Paul Simon — “They give us those nice, bright colors/They give us the greens of summers” — have held up extraordinarily well over the decades.)
Mr. Stulik tends to supplement the supply of donated material with his own, which he finds while obsessively combing eBay and rummaging in antiques shops wherever he travels. He recently paid $15 at a shop on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks for a rare example of a tintype photograph, probably from the middle to late 19th century printed not on metal but on a wallet-size piece of leather.
“You know, I’m obsessed,” he said. “You find stuff in the most ungodly places.”
The goal of Mr. Stulik and his fellow scientists is to produce, sometime in the next few years, a door-stopping Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes, a chemical characterization of every known (and, until now, some previously unknown) means of making pictures. The other day on the floor in his lab he and an assistant, Art Kaplan, unfurled a partial compendium of their research to date, a Santa’s-list-like paper chart more than a dozen feet long enumerating in small type the materials they had already identified in different types of photos.
The research could have an impact not only in the world of photo conservation — a relatively young practice that got under way seriously only in the 1970s — but also in the practice of authentication. With auction prices for masterwork photographs skyrocketing, definitive evidence that, say, a vintage Lewis W. Hine really is vintage and not a later print can mean a difference of tens of thousands of dollars in its price. (Several years ago Hine collectors were shaken when a number of prints made after he died were passed off as being vintage.)
Ultimately the research could also substantially revise and refine the timelines of photo history. It has already begun to shake things up. Mr. Stulik frequently packs up a suitcase-size portable lab he and his assistants have designed — the most important component is an infrared spectrometer resembling a kind of space-age pistol, attached to a powerful laptop — and lugs it to museums around the world.
Last summer his team went to the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, which has one of the world’s largest and most significant photo collections. One of the purposes was to test a picture on display there that had been identified for decades as the first print ever made with vanadium, a silver-gray metal once briefly used along with silver, platinum and other metals to make images on paper more permanent.
But within only a couple of minutes, the Getty’s spectrometers determined that there was no trace of vanadium in the photograph, suggesting that it is not a rare historical artifact but simply a much more common silver-based salt print. The research also found that an experimental print labeled as made in 1854 by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of photography’s pioneers, contained collodion and baryta, two materials not believed to have been used so early — a huge development in the world of photo scholarship, if confirmed.
“In essence this can start to rewrite the history of photography,” said Grant Romer, director of the advanced residency program in photograph conservation at the George Eastman House in Rochester. “It’s already provoked a sort of crisis in the understanding of what we think we know about some photographs.”
Mr. Romer, a dean in the field of photography conservation, said that while the science will certainly benefit from Mr. Stulik’s research, he believes such work is being driven now not only by the switch to digital but also by the art market’s final, lucrative embrace of photography. (Last year a rare print by Edward Steichen sold at auction for almost $3 million, setting a record.)
“Up until maybe 10 years ago,” Mr. Romer said, “many photographs really didn’t have a value that made all of this matter. Now it does.”
Mr. Stulik professes not to care much about how the market will use his work, although it is probably waiting eagerly for his findings. “This is not my mission,” he said dismissively.
Instead he tends to spend his days obsessing over things like egg yolks — “Albumen used only egg whites,” he said. “What did they do with all the yolks?” — and arsenic, traces of which he found recently, to his great surprise, in examining an old cyanotype photograph.
“I wake up during the night, and I am thinking: ‘What is that arsenic doing there? There should not be arsenic there. What were they doing?’ ” he said, running his hand over his forehead. “I lose sleep over this. Really, it is crazy.”
Maybe, but in Mr. Stulik’s world, as he frequently makes clear, few things are more important than pictures.
“What do you save in a fire?” he asked, leaning in close. “First, children. Second, maybe a spouse? Third, your photographs — because there is no way to replace them.”