Above and Under the Surface: An Interview with Conservator Rosina Herrera

“A picture is worth a thousand words” takes a special meaning when your work is identifying the secrets behind the images produced since the discovery of pre-photographic methods of capturing light on sensitive surfaces. To explain how a photo conservator approaches, determines and preserves the stories that a picture can hide above and under the surface we interviewed Rosina Herrera. She is a Spanish photo conservator with training from institutions that steward some of the world’s most important and oldest photo archives, including the George Eastman Museum (GEM) in Rochester, New York. In Rochester, Rosina and I crossed paths for the first time in 2011 and since then we’ve cherished memories of different encounters in NYC while she was working for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and later in Mexico City while she was a guest speaker at a conservation conference. Between Los Angeles and Amsterdam, Rosina and I connected via Skype to talk about how she chose her career path, her current projects working for the renowned Rijkmuseum, and the stories that the photographs tell her. 

*All images provided by Rosina Herrera

Claudia Pretelin: How did you get into conservation and restoration? What is your particular area of expertise?

Rosina Herrera: When I was in the last year of high school my art history teacher told me about this career and how to apply to the different available programs. At that time I had a strong interest in history and drawing and I had good manual skills. I immediately knew I wanted to study this, although I ended up also doing a second Master, in Art History, parallel to the conservation program. 

I specialize now in the conservation of photographs; a discipline I fell in love with when I took my first classes on photography and learned about the process of developing and printing black and white film, among others part of the Conservation Program. 

However, this specialty was not offered in my school in Madrid or for that matter in Spain, so I became a paper and book conservator, to later switch to photographs. I was admitted at the no longer existent Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation, at the George Eastman Museum (GEM) in partnership with the Image Permanence Institute (IPI), both in Rochester, NY. This two-year fellowship was the ideal program to learn about photo conservation since I was exposed to the amazing collection at the GEM, the wide resources offered at the IPI and the opportunity of learning from international experts.

CP: What kind of objects do you work with in your everyday practice?

RH: Almost anything you can imagine! Photographs have been made on many different supports including paper, glass, metal, ceramic, film, and with different types of media and substances used for making the image. Besides all this variety, we can also encounter weird processes that we cannot identify, things that one of my mentors in Rochester, Mark Osterman, defines as “obscurotypes”. For these, we have analytical tools that we can use to know more about their materiality and how they were made.

You can also find photographs with other materials attached to them. I remember once treating an object formed by a cyanotype that was in good condition and the tree leaf used to make the image on the cyanotype attached on the same page. This leaf was friable, torn, and detached. So, suddenly I had to learn to treat a dry botanical specimen and reached out for advice to my colleagues in different botanical gardens. Photographs are full of surprises!

RP-F-2013-20-3. Cyanotype with the botanical specimen used to make it attached on the same page.

CP: And I imagine every photo collection is different. What type of photo collection does the Rijkmuseum hold?

RS: Yes. At the Rijkmuseum I work mainly with prints since we don’t collect negatives so much. We have a strong collection, of course, on Dutch photography, from early examples from the 1840s including daguerreotypes, paper negatives, salted paper prints, etc., to contemporary large format prints including chromogenic and inkjet to mention a few. 

The curators here, especially Mattie Boom, have a strong interest in amateur photography, so we have an important collection of photographs that represent other subjects besides the typical landscape or portrait. For example, thanks to our other curator Hans Rooseboom, who loves the cyanotype process, we have a large collection of them representing maps, industrial pieces, botanical examples, fabric catalogues, etc. In our collection, one can encounter numerous books illustrated with photographs, as well as X-rays and medical and criminal photography. 

Every day at work is different. It never gets boring and I have many other tasks, besides treatment. Conservators, on a daily basis, condition check objects before and after a loan, perform courier trips to accompany the art when it travels, document the actual condition and present damages before, during, and after treatment, examine the objects with normal, IR, and UV light and perform research on the collection.” –Rosina Herrera

RP-F-F3775A. Sem Presser, Print of an X-ray of a left hand, index finger bent, 1937-50, 175 x 240 mm.

CP: Tell us about a recent research project you worked on. 

RS: I recently finished an article about the use of coatings on 19th century salted paper prints, using the work of Eduard Isaac Asser (1809-1994) as a case study. Asser is one of the pioneers of photography in the Netherlands. He made the earliest images taken in Amsterdam, Haarlem, and other Dutch cities, using the daguerreotype and the calotype processes. The salted paper prints he made from his calotypes were very experimental at the beginning, so they have not aged so well. However, he ended up mastering the technique and getting incredible results.

Asser experimented with different coatings to protect his photographs from fading and discoloration. For this purpose, he used starch, beeswax, gum, shellac, and other natural resins. Some of these coatings have discolored over time, disturbing the image and making the identification process very difficult. By using X-Ray Spectroscopy (XRF), Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), and Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) I was able to learn more about Asser techniques for making and finishing his prints.

RP-F-AB12277-AF, Eduard Isaac Asser, Portrait of a girl, 1845, salted paper print, 51 x 41 mm.
RP-F-AB12280-AP, Eduard Isaac Asser, Self-portrait, 1854-55, salted paper print coated with beeswax, 157 x 98 mm.
RP-F-AB12279-W, Eduard Isaac Asser, Self-portrait with his son Lodewijk, 1853, salted paper print coated with natural resin, 81 x 67 mm.

CP: What are some of the misconceptions about the work that you do?

RS: When I say that I conserve or restore photographs most people think that I do this in Photoshop. That is especially annoying because, on one hand, I am pretty bad with this software and, on the other, this reaction reassures the fact that for most people a photograph is just an image. And, no, I work with the actual object, with its physical and materiality. 

CP: You have a solid trajectory working for renowned institutions such as the Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and now the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Can you talk briefly about what these experiences brought to you personally and professionally?

RS: Personally, these places have shaped my life. Mainly because I became an immigrant in 2005 (at the age of 25) and I am still one. Living abroad is something everyone should experience to become more open, resourceful, and tolerant. Although it can be very hard, even the worst anecdotes are worthy as learning experiences. Until 2014, when I entered the RM, my life was very unstable. Moving from one place to the next one, in Spain and abroad. That had the direct consequence of having trouble settling in one place. Now, I am happily married and enjoying some stability in my professional and personal life. 

Professionally, it is very helpful to move around and see how things are done in different institutions, with different resources. I have had great and not so great colleagues and inspiring and no so inspiring supervisors. From everyone and everywhere, I try to get the most of it. I am addicted to learning.

CP: Once upon a time, we used to talk about the ubiquity of the photographic print. As these objects are becoming more rare in our everyday life, how is your field envisioning the evolution of photo conservation?

RS: Well, the digital revolution has had two direct consequences: first, most people do not print their pictures anymore, so there are fewer physical photographs around than some decades ago. That seems the end of our field, right? What would we conserve if the object exists only in its virtual stage? 

However, the second consequence is the revival of analog photography. There is a melancholy about the past, handling the actual print and, even the faded colors of old prints are trendy now! This is leading people to learn and make old photographic processes. If the market stops making color or b&w film and paper, we can always go back in time and play around with the 19th century processes. They were all handmade and based in the use of paper, glass, different salts, eggs, gelatin, etc. It will require some knowledge and skills but nowadays there are more and more people offering workshops on these wonderful techniques. 

So, as a photo conservator, I see the field growing and evolving towards perhaps something different. We are already dealing with objects that are not purely photographic but because they were born with photographic intentions and they look like a photograph they ended up into photographic collections. I am referring to the so-called “digital prints” which are mere ink on paper and, by material definition, should be treated by a paper conservator, and not by us, right? 

CP: You recently wrote a manual about photo conservation. Can you talk about this project?

RS: Yes, actually I am thrilled to say that this book is finally done. I am just waiting for the final comments from the editors and hopefully, it will be published soon by Ediciones Síntesis. This book is part of a project coordinated by Mikel Rotaeche, a Modern Painting Conservator at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid (Spain). The idea was to make a collection of conservation manuals, one book per specialty, and I was asked to write the volume on photograph conservation. 

This will be the book I would have loved to have as a student. It includes information about the history and identification of photographic processes, treatment techniques, preventive conservation, and technical analysis applied to photographs. It has an important chapter on disaster recovery of collections and a very detailed bibliography. 

It is in Spanish, which is relevant because most of the literature we use is in English, and it is important to increase the resources available in other languages. Besides that, Spanish speaking countries have unique, valuable photographic collections, sometimes kept in institutions with little resources and without conservators on the team. This manual aims to be a useful tool for students in the field but also for caretakers who need to know more about their collection and how to care about them. It will be available in print and also digitally for e-book, which will make it easier to distribute among Latin-American countries. 

I am devoted to education and I have given many workshops, mainly in Spain. Recently, I have decided to reduce this activity since I believe I have trained enough people, who can now be the new teachers. This book is another way of contributing to my ambition of spreading the knowledge about this beautiful field.

CP: What’s your favorite or your “go to” book about photo conservation?

RS: I find it difficult to choose only one. I was trained with James Reilly’s Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints (1986) and Luis Pavao’s Conservación de fotografías (2002). Recently I tend to use Bertrand Lavedrine’s Re-conocer y conservar las fotografías antiguas (2009) and Issues in the Conservation of Photographs (2010), coordinated by Debra Hess Norris and Jennifer Jae Gutierrez.

However, this field evolves so fast that it is easier to keep updated by calling your colleagues and seeing what they are working on and by regularly attending international conferences. I also try to stay in touch with the people who have inspired me and from whose steps I have learned. My main mentors have been Ángel Fuentes, unfortunately no longer among us, and Grant Romer. They both have a very special place in my heart because encountering them changed my destiny.    

CP: What do you like to do when you’re not working directly in photo conservation?

RS: I like going for a walk in nature or practicing sports like jogging or yoga. I am currently also taking drawing and sewing lessons. I love the idea of making my own clothes. I meditate daily around 20 minutes every morning and I practice longer meditations alone or in group weekly. I still consider myself a beginner. 

Rosina Herrera study collection.

CP: What’s your favorite instrument of memory?

RS: Damaged photographs. They tell you everything about themselves and, sometimes, your own history. I am especially interested in what you might encounter on the verso of a print. Someone should make an exhibition of flipped photographs! 

CP: Why don’t you! Thanks, Rosina!

In addition to this interview don’t miss Rosina’s takeover for the Instruments of Memory Instagram account!

Rosina Herrera studied Paper Conservation and Art History before she was trained as a Photograph Conservator in Rochester, NY, at the Eastman Museum’s Advanced Residency Program in Photo Conservation. She worked at MoMA (NY) as an Andrew W. Mellon fellow and has collaborated with the Hispanic Society of New York. In 2014 she joined the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam (The Netherlands).

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