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Photograph preservation documents early 20th century history

Fig. 1 – Gelatin silver photographing print of a man in a patchwork big shirt, possibly Sam Huff, standing amongst a group of chickees, 1924: a – before conservation treatment, b – after conservation treatment. (Photo from Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

By Maria Dmitrieva, Conservator, and Tara Backhouse, Collections Manager

BIG CYPRESS — The archive of the Seminole Tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum carefully stores documents and photographs that testify to the difficult historical periods of existence and survival of the noble and proud Seminole people. One of the collections that shows this history includes many albums that were created by the family of W. Stanley Hanson, a white Fort Myers doctor who devoted his life to medically treating Seminole citizens, as well as fighting for Seminole rights and facilitating communication between Seminole people and other local residents. These photographic prints from the last century tell us about lives and traditions, about outstanding leaders and tribal citizens, and also have a teaching mission. These photographs are antiques. Many have physical and chemical damage, and therefore need significant treatment work. This year we started a new project to preserve these archival documents and photographs. So far 26 objects from this collection have been treated in the conservation lab.

In this article we will talk about just two photographs that were conserved as part of this project. Professional conservation implies an individual approach to each object. A photographic print is a multi-component object, usually having a two- or three-layer structure. The nature and characteristics of these layers, as well as the state of preservation of each photograph, means that each one requires a customized conservation treatment.

The first image shows a 1924 black and white photograph of a man in a patchwork big shirt, possibly Sam Huff, standing amongst a group of chickees (Fig. 1 a-b). Original writing on the back says: “Indian in costume, Indian camp, Ft. Lauderdale, FLa. Clothes copied from coral snake (most deadly poison). 5/’24”. This photograph, almost 100 years old, with iron gall ink on the back, was curled and deformed. For better storage and better preservation, this photo needed to be cleaned and flattened. Usually, to flatten a curled photograph, it is enough to put it in water till fully soaked and dry it in a straightened form.
In this case, it was impossible to dip the photo into the water because of the ink that would flow down the reverse side. Therefore, we had to apply the method of remote wetting, in which the ink writing does not have time to get wet and spread, and the emulsion, or top layer, absorbs/soaks moisture in small portions, swells, and makes the paper flatten. For this photograph, remote wetting followed by drying in a press was carried out 5 times until the desired result was achieved.

Fig. 2 – Gelatin silver photograph print – a portrait of Mary Tommie (Mrs. Smallpox Tommie) wearing beads and traditional hairstyle, 1959: a – before conservation treatment, b – after conservation treatment. (Photo from Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

The second black and white photograph featured here is a 1959 portrait of Mary Tommie (Mrs. Smallpox Tommy) wearing beads and a traditional hairstyle (Fig. 2 a-b). This photograph had different damage than the previous one. There were tears, creases, scratches, tape remnants and glue residues, as well as a newspaper clipping attached on the back. Also, the photograph had losses along the right edge, where part of the original photograph was missing. Therefore, after a general cleaning and removal of foreign deposits, the losses were filled up with appropriate conservation paper. The right edge was strengthened from the back with equal-strength Japanese paper. The photograph was flattened using the remote wetting method to avoid the spreading of the water soluble ink of the red stamp. At the last step, the filled area was retouched with watercolor paint to match the pattern of the areas adjacent to the patch. An associated newspaper clipping was treated as well and now is stored together with the photograph.

The conservation treatment of old photographic prints will be continued to improve their preservation state and make them more available to the Seminole community. If you would like to see how we are working to preserve Seminole history, arrange a special tour by calling (863) 902-1113 or by inquiring at