Yale to launch Lens Media Lab for photograph research and conservation

Ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence reveals admixtures of optical brighteners, indicating a “terminus post quem” — or "limit after which" — for the production of photographic paper.

The Lens Media Laboratory (LML), a new research facility that will apply scientific principles to the characterization and conservation of photographs and other lens-based media, has been created as part of the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH), a center dedicated to improving the science and practice of conservation globally.

Paul Messier, a renowned photography conservator, will join Yale as the inaugural head of the LML. Funding for the endowed directorship and laboratory start-up has been provided by an anonymous donor.

Paul Messier

“This extraordinary gift will catalyze the development of new methods for scholars to classify, preserve, and interpret photographs and other lens media, both physical and digital,” said Stefan Simon, director of the IPCH. “In Paul Messier, we have successfully attracted one of the foremost experts in the world, whose track record of working across a diverse range of constituencies and disciplines — from museums to individual collectors and humanities to the sciences — will be a tremendous asset to this endeavor.”

In its first years, the LML will focus on 20th-century photographic prints as it works to advance several primary goals, all in keeping with the IPCH’s interdisciplinary culture and global reach. Messier will bring to Yale his personal collection of photographic paper from the 20th century, a unique resource the LML aims to augment with further acquisitions. Considered the largest of its kind in the world, the reference collection provides an objective baseline for understanding the physical and chemical composition of photographs and interpreting artistic practices and intent.

This baseline has already begun to impact the detection of forgeries and misattributions. “Fakes are not simply a problem for the art market but provoke much broader scholarly inquiry,” Messier said. “Issues of attribution, artistic working practices, stylistic development, and spheres of artistic influence are vital scholarly questions. My goal for the LML will be to develop tools to address these questions using data derived from the physical object.” 

Simon and Messier intend to collaborate with Yale faculty, conservators, and students across campus as well as peers working internationally. Closely aligned with the objectives of the emergent field of technical art history, which is influencing museum practice worldwide, this research is expected to yield techniques and knowledge that will be developed and shared through partnerships with leading institutions around the world.

A deteriorated 19th-century tintype portrait documented using microscopic reflectance transformation imaging. (Photo courtesy Paul Messier)

A deteriorated 19th-century tintype portrait documented using microscopic reflectance transformation imaging. (Photo courtesy Paul Messier)

“This is an extraordinary time for photography,” said Simon. “In a single day, we may be taking more photographs than were captured in the whole of the preceding century. The cultural value and influence of visual media of all forms is expanding incalculably. We have to ask: What do we preserve, why, and by what means? What constitutes authenticity in this realm, especially when an image can take on so many forms, both dependent and independent of any material basis? These questions find an ideal place at Yale, given our proven interdisciplinary culture and direct access to the best scientists and humanists.”

The Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage was established in 2011 to advance research into the conservation of cultural heritage. Located at the Yale West Campus, the institute supports state-of-the-art conservation, digitization, and research laboratories. The IPCH is an interdisciplinary venture, with ties to the university’s vast museum and library collections as well as the scientific and technical expertise of Yale’s schools and academic departments.

(February 20, 2015)

February 20, 2015