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An atlas of photographic processes

Saturday 21 September 2013

The Getty Conservation Institute has released a terrific resource for collectors and custodians of historic photographs.

The Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes is intended for practicing photograph conservators, cu­ra­tors, art historians, archivists, library professionals, and anyone responsible for the care of photograph collections. Its purpose is to aid in the formulation of analytical ques­tions related to a particular photograph and to assist sci­en­tists unfamiliar with analysis of photographs when in­ter­preting analytical data. The Atlas contains in­ter­pre­ta­tion guides with identification of overlaps of spectral peaks and warnings of potential misidentification or mis­in­ter­preta­tion of analytical results.

It’s published as a set of free pdf documents​—​an Introduction, plus separate chapters on the Albumen, Carbon, Collodion on paper, Collotype, Cyanotype, Halftone, Photogravure, Platino­type, Salt print, Silver gelatin, and Woodburytype processes​—​with the promise of more to come. Each of these chapters has an historical account of the development and use of the process, and a guide to identifying photographs made by that process. The iden­ti­fi­ca­tion methods include looking at the print with the naked eye (which I can do), low-magnification microscopy (which I can manage, sort of, with hand lens and scanning), and using XRF and ATR-FTIR spectometry (not possible for me, but interesting to read about).

I have followed the guidance of the Atlas and confirmed that a cabinet card in my collection is the product of the collotype process.

It’s a photo of a group of South Australian Aboriginal people gathered in front of a wurlie, a kind of bough shelter. I believe the photo was taken by Samuel White Sweet around 1878. Albumen prints of the image are held by the National Library and the National Gallery. I own three very different derivatives of this image​—​a wood engraving (from the Picturesque atlas of Aus­tral­asia, 1886); a postcard reproduction of a painting (by the English publisher Raphael Tuck & Sons, after 1905); and the cabinet card shown below (now confirmed as a collotype).

Samuel White Sweet (photographer), Coast natives’ wurlie, Adelaide, collotype reproduction published by Schultz & Schlenner, Berlin.

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