Taina Meller can’t stop touching the art!  An interview with the Eastman Museum’s Conservator in Charge

Taina Meller can’t stop touching the art!  An interview with the Eastman Museum’s Conservator in Charge

Originally from Finland, Taina Meller arrived in the United States planning to stay for a couple of years to continue her education in photo conservation. Fifteen years later, she still lives and works in Rochester, New York. She has devoted her career to working with images that she admired in the photography books that she studied when she was in school, not knowing that one day she will hold them and preserve them for others to see and enjoy as well. Meller is the Conservator in Charge at the George Eastman Museum, home of one of the most important photography collections in the world. In this interview she talks about her career, shares a story about one of her most challenging projects as a conservator, and gives advice to those that, like her, can’t stop touching the art.

Claudia Pretelin: Taina, please talk about your background and what drew you to work in conservation?

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Photo by Michael Shuter


Taina Meller
: I am originally from far away Finland. Early on, I was studying photography and the history and aesthetics of it. I was drawn to historic photographic processes and soon started to explore and experiment with them. It was both tremendously exciting and liberating not to be restricted to the selection of photographic papers available. Instead, I could now go to art supply stores, which I continue to love. I would spend hours looking at, feeling (yes, touching!) and learning about the amazingly beautiful papers and their qualities. I wanted my prints to last!

At that point I had barely heard the word conservation, not to mention photograph conservation. Then, I more or less accidentally attended a lecture given by the then only photograph conservator in Finland, Riitta Koskivirta. After that lecture, I knew exactly what I wanted to be and do! I applied to a conservation school, got in, and soon was interning with the inspiring photograph conservator at The Finnish Museum of Photography.

CP: How did you transition from far away Finland to Rochester, New York?

TM: My mentor, Riitta, had spent a few years studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology, interning at the George Eastman Museum (then Eastman House) and finally working at the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) in Rochester, New York. When I graduated, she strongly encouraged me to apply to the Andrew W. Mellon funded Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at the Eastman Museum and IPI. The plan was for me to return to Finland after the two-year fellowship, but more than fifteen years later, which includes two amazing years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I am still here!

CP: What do you like the most about your job at the Eastman Museum?

TM: The museum’s amazing photography collection! When I was still studying photography, many of the textbooks had images of iconic photographs in the George Eastman Museum collection. Little did I know that one day I would have the privilege to work here and care for those very photographs! I am also blessed with wonderful colleagues, many of whom I greatly appreciate and enjoy both professionally and personally.

CP: What has been your most difficult assignment as a conservator?

TM: Not sure I can single out the most difficult assignment, but a couple of years ago my colleague Zach Long and I were working on a project that certainly was challenging. A panorama daguerreotype, photographed by William Southgate Porter in 1848 and depicting the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia, needed to be rehoused and reframed. The object consists of eight daguerreotypes under a decorative cardboard window mat. Seven of the daguerreotypes are placed next to each other composing the actual panorama, and one above them, showing the point where the panorama was photographed. Originally the daguerreotypes had been taped directly to the back of the window mat, and the window mat had been in contact with the glazing of the frame. The mounting and framing were upgraded in the late 1970s, but unfortunately were no longer providing sufficient protection.

The rehousing was challenging for a number of reasons. First, the daguerreotype plates are unevenly cut and do not have a single straight corner. Secondly, the panorama has two junctures where, for visual reasons, it is necessary to overlap the edges of the plates. For preservation reasons, our goal was to secure the plates in a primary housing that would be made of non-hygroscopic and chemically stable materials, and would allow only a minimal amount of air within it. The window mat would be placed on top of the primary housing and there would be a spacer to separate the mat from the secondary glazing, an anti-reflective acrylic. The 1970s frame was not original to the object. It was decided to replace it with one that would provide more structural support and would, style-wise, match the period of the object.

After some serious brainstorming and testing, we decided to use chemically inert plastic called polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) to hold and secure the daguerreotypes in their correct positions. For the cover glass, we chose chemically strengthened glass, found, for example, in smartphones. To add rigidity to the plate package, we decided to place a thin sheet of aluminum behind the PETG plastic backing. Lastly, we chose pressure sensitive polyester film tape with acrylic adhesive as our binding material.

CP: What should be considered when taking on such an arduous task?

TM: Documentation is a key element in ethical conservation practice. Thus, in the course of the project, the daguerreotypes were thoroughly examined, their condition compared to the previous conservation reports and photographs, and new reports written and photographs taken. It was a lot of work over a lengthy period of time, but totally worth it. The panorama is now protected, hopefully for several decades to come, and it looks gorgeous!

CP: What is one thing about conservation that you think is important for people to understand?

TM: The ultimate goal of the field is to safeguard and preserve our tangible cultural heritage, to make it accessible for generations to come. All conservation activities, such as conservation treatments, are to respect the cultural significance and the physical properties of an object, and they should at all times be performed with the least possible intervention. So, the intention is not to make an object look like it is newly made, but rather stabilize it if needed, and perhaps most importantly, provide it with a housing and an environment that supports its optimal preservation.

CP: Besides patience, what are some particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?

TM: True interest and motivation, commitment to the profession. Wide knowledge of materials and technologies encountered in the creation of photographic objects. Willingness to continually learn. Good hand skills and an eye for detail.

CP: Do you have any advice for emerging conservators who are pursuing this career?

TM: Unfortunately the number of jobs available for photograph conservators is somewhat limited. However, if becoming a photograph conservator is your true calling, my advice is to follow your heart and go for it. That’s exactly what I did too, and I love it!

Taina Meller is the Conservator in Charge at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. After graduating from the EVTEK Institute of Art and Design in Vantaa, Finland, she worked as a photograph conservator for a number of major institutions in Helsinki, Finland, including The Finnish Museum of Photography and the Finnish National Gallery. In 2003, Ms. Meller became an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow of the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at the George Eastman Museum and the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, New York. In 2005, she became the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Sherman Fairchild Center for Works on Paper and Photographic Conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY. She returned to the George Eastman Museum in 2007 as Associate Conservator and has held her current position since 2009.

Exhibit Your Work in the International Phenomenon 6x6x2019!

Exhibit Your Work in the International Phenomenon 6x6x2019!

Each summer Rochester Contemporary Art Center’s 6×6 exhibition brings together thousands of original artworks, made and donated by international & local artists, designers, celebrities, youth, amateurs, and art lovers. This unique exhibition is RoCo’s annual fundraiser and this year it comes back in its 12th iteration as one of Rochester’s favorite traditions.

Every year artists from all over the world participate with artworks that can be produced in any medium the only stipulation is that the artworks are six inches square. Photography has always had a huge presence in this show that helps fund thoughtful contemporary art exhibitions in Rochester, New York. Just last year, RoCo received over 6500 artworks from all around the world and about 2000 of those entries were photographs. From portraits, landscapes, documentary, and street photography, all kinds of genres come in as donations from amateurs to professional artists.

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Although artworks are anonymous during the course of the exhibition, once artworks have been sold the names of the artists are revealed on RoCo’s 6×6 website. In previous years, well know photographers from Carl Chiarenza and Richard Margolis to international figures such as Nathan Lyons and Hasselblad Award recipient Graciela Iturbide have exhibited in one or more editions of 6×6.

 

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To give you a sample of just a few of some of the amazing artworks that were on display last year, here’s a selection of some of our favorites. Do you want to learn more about how to participate in this exhibition? It’s very easy! Entries are accepted now through April 14 (postmarked April 13). Check out www.roco6x6.org for more information and be part of the International Small Art Phenomenon!

 

Focus 45: Claudia Pretelin, From the Kodak Girl to the Kodak Snapshot: Kodak Advertising 1920–1940

Early Kodak advertising is mostly associated with the iconic image of the Kodak Girl. Then in the 1930s, Eastman Kodak Company turned their advertising campaigns over to the New York advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. How did this change affect the public image of Kodak? Claudia Pretelin, art historian, will explore this era of Kodak advertising and how it created the basis for the so-called snapshot aesthetic. GEM-2017-Focus45-July-Eflyer

Claudia Pretelin holds a BA in communications and received her MA and PhD in art history from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). For ten years, she worked as a personal assistant to the Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide. In 2011, she was awarded a fellowship from the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) in support of her continuing research in Kodak advertising at the George Eastman Museum. She has worked for different museums, foundations, and photo collections in Mexico City, including the Fotoseptiembre Festival in 1999 and the International Biennial of Photography in 2000. She is currently exhibitions associate at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center in Rochester, New York.

Event Details

Saturday, July 22, 2017
12 p.m.
Curtis Theatre
George Eastman Museum
Celebrating 177 Years of Photography

Do you know why is World Photo Day?

On August 19, 1839, the French government acquired the patent of the daguerreotype and announced that the new process would be donated as a gift to the world.

The daguerreotype was a revolutionary photographic process developed and named after its inventor Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. It is a unique image on a silvered copper plate, sensitized with iodine vapors, exposed in a camera obscura, developed in mercury fumes and fixed with salt water or sodium thiosulphate. It has a mirror-like surface and it’s very fragile.

The invention of the daguerreotype was revealed in an announcement published in January, 1839, in the official bulletin of the French Academy of Sciences. Shortly after the public announcement, Daguerre published a manual on daguerreotyping and, despite the difficulty of transporting the equipment, the process immediately attracted devotees who rushed to purchase cameras, plates, and chemicals. The French press characterized the phenomenon as a craze or “dagueréotypomanie.”

The daguerreotype marked a breakthrough in photographic history and an opportunity for ordinary people to capture their own memories.

Celebrando el legado de George Eastman

Celebrando el legado de George Eastman

Este lunes el museo que lleva el nombre de George Eastman ubicado en Rochester, Nueva York, anunció el insólito hallazgo y adquisición (vía eBay) de los únicos ejemplos de rollos de película utilizados para las primeras cámaras Kodak. Una caja con un rollo idéntico al empleado en el aparato introducido al mercado fotográfico en 1888 y tres rollos de película transparente, la cual salió a la venta un año después. Este importante descubrimiento para historiadores, coleccionistas e interesados en la fotografía, resulta motivo doble de celebración si consideramos que un día como hoy se conmemora el nacimiento de Eastman, creador de la marca comercial Kodak. Así que para celebrar ambos eventos, qué mejor que reconocer la importancia de este nombre en la historia de la fotografía recordando tan sólo una pequeña parte de sus amplias contribuciones a la imagen moderna.

George Eastman (1854-1932) se interesó por la fotografía en 1878 después de adquirir un equipo fotográfico para un viaje que nunca realizó. Al darse cuenta de lo complicado, laborioso y tardado que significaba capturar imágenes en esa época, decidió buscar un procedimiento que facilitara la toma de fotografías. Obsesionado con esta nueva empresa, Eastman trabajó como empleado de un banco durante el día y después regresaba a casa a experimentar con una técnica que según sabía, ya se estaba desarrollando en Inglaterra: la placa seca de gelatina bromuro (una placa de vidrio con una emulsión sensible que expuesta a la luz capturaba la imagen que aparecía después del revelado). Pronto y con la ayuda financiera de Henry Strong con quien formó la compañía Eastman Dry Plate, el joven empresario comercializó su propia versión de estas placas. Sin embargo, decidido a cambiar el curso de la fotografía, el primer intento de diversificación de su empresa se dio en 1884, al comercializar un rollo fotográfico que eventualmente sustituiría a la placa de vidrio, reemplazando el nombre de su empresa a Eastman Dry and Film.

Aunque es común referirse a la Kodak No. 1 como la primera cámara desarrollada por Eastman, en 1886 el empresario de Rochester, trató de sacar al mercado la cámara Eastman Detective. Sin embargo, problemas con el costo de producción impidieron que este aparato pudiera comercializarse como se tenía pensado. Fue gracias a la ayuda de Frank A. Brownell, un fabricante local de cámaras, que Eastman diseñó un nuevo y mejorado aparato fotográfico al cual registró en Estados Unidos con el número de patente 388,850. De esta manera, en septiembre de 1888 se dio a conocer públicamente la cámara Kodak (nombre fácil de recordar y pronunciar en cualquier idioma), cargada con un rollo fotográfico de 100 tomas en sucesión. Esta cámara salió a la venta a un precio de 25 dólares, alto costo para la época y el cual pocos podían pagar.

La innovación de este aparato, vino ligada a la capacidad de la empresa de ofrecer el servicio de revelado a sus clientes, quienes podían enviar la cámara a la compañía para obtener las impresiones de sus imágenes y un nuevo rollo cargado en la cámara por el costo de 10 dólares adicionales. Para aquellos que podían cubrir este servicio, la práctica fotográfica se convirtió en una nueva y divertida forma de registrar el acontecer del día a día y la publicidad fungió como una estrategia importante para la compañía de Eastman. Con un eslogan directo como You press the button we do the rest/ Usted aprieta el botón, nosotros hacemos el resto, la empresa de Rochester mercantilizó la vida cotidiana moderna y este momento histórico vio el inicio de una nueva concepción de la práctica: la fotografía simplificada, liberada y paulatinamente, al alcance de las masas.

Esta importante adquisición contribuye de manera histórica a la más representativa colección de aparatos y productos producidos por la compañía Kodak la cual se encuentra alojada en uno de los museos más importantes a nivel mundial dedicados a preservar la historia de la fotografía y el cine. “La pieza que faltaba” según señala Todd Gustavson—curador del Eastman Museum—en la exhibición cronológica de la historia tecnológica de la fotografía en esa institución y una merecida celebración al legado de George Eastman.