Mexican photo conservator Mirasol Estrada has established her practice between her hometown, Guadalajara, Jalisco in Mexico and the United States, preserving and rescuing photo collections not only for some of the world’s leading archives and museums but also for private collectors and family archives, helping them to safeguard their treasured photo memories. Interested in bringing the knowledge she acquired during her time studying and working abroad back to her country, Estrada not only offers her very specialized skills to the general public, she is constantly sharing this knowledge with peers and students in her field through workshops and seminars. 

I met Mirasol Estrada back in 2010 when I first visited Rochester, New York. As the only Mexicans working at the George Eastman Museum at the time, we developed a close connection that a newcomer needs when traveling to a foreign country. Since then I have been following her career and her many contributions to the conservation field. Over a video call followed by email exchanges, we spoke about how she fell in love with photography, her different journeys in American museums and archives, and her transition to private practice with ARGENTUM Photo-conservation studios in Guadalajara, Jalisco.

Claudia Pretelin: I understand that you originally wanted to be a painter. How did you get into conservation and restoration and when or how did you decide to specialize particularly in photography?

Mirasol Estrada: My beginnings in conservation were pretty pragmatic at first: I thought that as a conservator I was going to learn painting techniques that would later become handy for my art making, and that the art conservator profession would give me the possibility of making more income than as an artist.

Then photography came along. It was almost like a love at first sight. At first, I liked it as an object but didn’t know much about it. 

This is the story: I did my internship in a photographic archive in Guadalajara and started to have questions that I couldn’t find answers for. That took me to the conservation school in Mexico City and that’s where the love began. I remember it very clearly. I was in the darkroom printing gum bichromates, and I just knew that photography was going to be part of my life – that’s when the love happened.

CP: For those who are not familiar with your profession, can you talk a little bit about it and the instruments that conservators use in their everyday practice?

ME: Our profession is about understanding photographs further and deeper than normal people do. We have to see the materials that make the photograph, how they have acted over time and how that affects the photographic image. To help with that, we use many instruments. We borrow from dentists, photographers, and sophisticated analytical instruments from science, among other fields.

Three instruments that I use on a regular basis include: a Teflon spatula,  to help manipulate the object, a small lantern light to see from different angles,  and an optivisor or magnifier to see closer.

Mirasol Estrada at ARGENTUM Photo-conservation studios, Guadalajara, Jalisco.
Photo by Nico Covarrubias

CP: In a museum or gallery setting, how close do conservators, curators, and other museum professionals work together to preserve the life of important photographic collections while making them accessible to museum and gallery visitors to experience?

ME: I think the dynamics depends on each museum, but definitely there is, and has to be, a very close relationship between those fields for a common goal. To conserve and to safely show the photographs so we can all learn more about them. 

It’s very important to have ongoing communication at all times. There are systems in place for that such as databases and software that are specifically designed for that purpose. For example, there are tools for tracking the location of the objects or the condition of the object before or after an exhibition as well as notes from the curatorial department. Nevertheless, in-person communication through regular meetings is key for all the parties to be on the same page. Each exhibition, new acquisition, or even simply the process of maintaining the storage, is an intense interdisciplinary effort.

Mirasol Estrada at ARGENTUM Photo-conservation studios, Guadalajara, Jalisco.
Photo by Nico Covarrubias

CP: You’ve worked for different art institutions in both Mexico and the United States and lectured extensively in Latin America. Can you summarize what are some of the main differences that you’ve noticed in the practice of photo conservation and restoration?

ME: I think the main differences become visible when you think about the awareness of our profession as a means to preserve our history.

In the United States, there is already a system in place for the appreciation of photography that is not necessarily shared in Latin American countries. As an example, in the US there are more graduate programs specifically designed for photo conservation and more museums, galleries, and events devoted only to photography. 

That said, the conservation of photographs in Latin America is still very young and with that comes a need for awareness. This allows more space for direct action where the conservator has to become an active agent of change in how photography is understood as a cultural heritage that deserves care and attention. 

Fortunately, there is a lot happening from an education perspective and within the field. A team of professionals in Mexico recently gathered to set standards such as the Norma Mexicana para la Preservación de Acervos Documentales –a guide for Mexican institutions to preserve and take care of their collections.  In terms of education, there is a recognized academic program in Mexico City, and also other programs to help people that already work with photographs but don’t have the academic background, such as Programa de Formación en Conservación de Patrimonio Fotográfico.

I think I can safely say that in Mexico, and in Latin America, there’s a greater need to work with photographic archives. This isn’t because there aren’t artistic photographs and amazing photographers, but because there’s a lot of work to do in educating on the need to preserve photographs as historical documents that have an impact on our identity.

CP: One of the most exciting discoveries in the photographic world in recent years was the finding of the Spanish Civil War Negatives by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim (David Seymour), emblematic names in the history of photography. Tell me about your experience working for the Mexican Suitcase–the name given to the exhibition project derived from the recovery of these materials. How did you get involved in the conservation of these negatives and what were some of your contributions to this project? 

ME: When the Mexican Suitcase was brought to light in 2008 I was attending the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. By then, I was already interested in the problem that film rolls caused to archives, in terms of quantity and preservation. 

The nature of the Mexican Suitcase was very appealing to me because it already was valued as a historical object and there was a lot of expectation in the images that were captured by Capa, Chim and Taro of the Spanish Civil War. I knew that the International Center of Photography asked for the assistance of the George Eastman Museum and I asked my director to be part of this project. 

Inside The Mexican Suitcase

CP: What did you learn from this experience as a conservator?

ME: One of our main problems was how to safely access the images without altering the original rolled shape of the negatives. To solve this problem, we put together an interdisciplinary team composed by a film preservation specialist, a designer, and myself. We were also working closely with our Director, other departments from the museum, and other sage people on related matters. My role was to research the storage of the film and whether they should be kept in their roll form as well as to develop a comprehensive conservation strategy.

It became very clear to me the importance of interdisciplinary work to solve problems related to the conservation of photography. I also corroborated that, as I suspected, it was possible to access the images of tightly rolled films without the need to cut them or change their form and, that way, preserving the meaning and the historical aspects of the photographic object. I also learned that the photographers took a lot of not so good images in order to get to the great ones.

CP: Working at the Art Institute of Chicago, your research specialized in the photographic work of artist László Moholy-Nagy. Can you talk briefly about how you became interested in his work at the Bauhaus and what were some of the new discoveries during your research?

ME: Moholy-Nagy’s work caught my attention first of all because of their experimental aspects in terms of the printing process of silver gelatin prints. And second, the experimentation with their esthetics. During my study, I came across a description of the “Eight varieties of photographic vision” that I believed he used to teach in the New Bauhaus in Chicago. That find made me want to see if there was a relation between his theory and his photographs. I was curious to see if he had a certain inclination for materials and printing processes to accomplish specific “varieties of photographic vision”. For example, the relation of his photograms with his theoretical “penetrative or abstract varieties”. 

It became very clear to me that for Moholy-Nagy the effect of light over the surfaces was essential. That to me is pure photography. 

I learned that the common denominator of his work and his writing was the effect of light. Also, I don’t think that he had a strict method of selecting materials or printing processes. He would adapt to what was available and experiment throughout the process.

CP: Can you describe the feeling of holding and working with a particular photograph or photographic object that has impacted you during your experience working as a professional conservator?

ME: I have worked with many, many amazing photographs but the series that I cherish most in my heart was the Gypsies by Josef Koudelka. I worked with them while at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

When I was a student and still considering getting into photo conservation, I remember seeing a Koudelka photograph that stuck in my mind for years and years (Man with Horse which is part of the series). It was almost like a moment when I remembered how this love story began.

So, when the Gypsies came in, and I learned that Kodeulka lived with them for 10 years and selected only 22 photographs for the series, I couldn’t help but to feel privileged and excited to work with them. Every time I would look at them I would discover something new, or a different way to look and them that would inspire me. I think my appreciation was also due to the fact that I have a passion for documentary photography because of its storytelling nature and its social component.

Mirasol Estrada’s ARGENTUM photo-conservation studios in Guadalajara, Jalisco.
Photos by Nico Covarrubias

CP: In the past seven years your work has been focused on lecturing and consulting for private collections in Mexico and the United States. Tell me about your practice with ARGENTUM Photo-conservation studios . What’s its mission and some of the services that it provides to photo collectors?

ME: I created ARGENTUM almost a year ago. The mission is to bring photo conservation with services that are specifically tailored for families. The services range from performing treatment for a single photograph, helping clients to organize their archives, to making facsimile albums. All this is done with the highest quality and ethical standards. I also continue working as an independent professional, lecturing and working with photographic archives.

CP: On a more personal level, in our previous conversation we discussed the mixed feelings about being an immigrant in the US but also in your own country. Do you consider that your bicultural identity has impacted your personal and professional practice?

ME: It’s funny how things happen. I’ve come back to my hometown twice in my life after being abroad for a long period of time. The first time I was 16 and I came back after living in Belgium for two years. The second time was when I came back after more that 10 years of living in the United States. Both times I came to the conclusion that it’s easier to go to an unknown place, than to come back to your hometown simply because you are no longer the same person. Guadalajara and its dynamics seem to be almost the same as it was when I left. However, I’ve changed in ways that I can’t quite articulate very well. These personal changes have made me see things that I wasn’t aware of before. 

Generally speaking, I think living elsewhere for a long period of time gives you a greater appreciation for your country and culture. You also absorb things from the places and cultures you have lived within, and in many cases that can be very nurturing, but also sometimes even difficult. You become a citizen of the world so to speak.

On a professional level, returning to Mexico was difficult at first because I was trying to replicate what I was doing in the US but without much impact. It took me some time to realize that the needs here were different; that our work is much needed in archives and by creating a culture of caring for our photographic heritage, and a bit less about the treatment of museum pieces. So I started to talk to my Latin-American colleagues, continuing studying and listening to the experiences of others.

I also had to totally rethink my services in private practice, specifically on how to present  them to a community and market in which photo conservation and restoration is still pretty new. That’s the birth of ARGENTUM.

I have to say too that one of the positive outcomes of this change has been more teaching and lecturing opportunities, not only about conservation, but also on the history of photography, which is a subject that I enjoy greatly.

CP: What are some of your plans for the near future?

ME: I want to keep bringing and making photo conservation more accessible to everyday people by developing ARGENTUM as a photo conservation studio tailored for families in addition to my ongoing projects as a consultant.

I also would love to continue studying, in a formal way, printing techniques and art history. 

CP: What’s your favorite instrument of memory?

ME: My instruments include printing frames from the 19th Century and darkrooms. Both are where moments in which an event in history, and artistic creation, get recorded. That moment includes the seconds in which light leaves a trace over a surface that was prepared by human hands.

CP: Thanks, Mirasol!

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

Mirasol Estrada is a conservator of photographic materials. She currently works as a private consultant for museums, galleries and private collectors in the United States and Mexico, and has recently started a project specifically tailored for family photographs and archives. She graduated with honors from the Escuela de Conservación y Restauración de Occidente in Guadalajara, Mexico, her hometown. In 2007, she was awarded by the Mellon Foundation to study in the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. There she helped develop a system to safely access film rolls from the Mexican Suitcase, newly discovered photographs of the Spanish Civil war. After the program Mirasol became the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Photograph Conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago. At the Institute her studies focused on the Working Practices in Photography of the Bauhaus . She has also worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. and for the Photography Collection in Fundación Televisa in Mexico City. She has given presentations in the United States, Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina and continues teaching conservation and history of photography.

If you are interested in learning more about Mirasol Estrada’s work, check out her website www.argentumphotoconservation.com and follow her on Instagram @argentum_photo_conservation

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