Panoramic Panic Part III

Ah, Halloween, my favorite time of year. With an upcoming photograph symposium on my mind, and the season getting drier, I'm inspired to make my costume up as a tightly wound vintage panoramic photograph. The fear of unrolling one never gets old, if you'll forgive the pun, because one never knows . . . what one might find lurking within (Meaning revealing prior damage, not the content – unless some creepy creature has taken up residence). Recently, I saw one rolled panorama so damaged by a historic water incident that the faces of the sitters had lifted right off the front of the print and stuck to the back of the paper facing it – leaving an eerie ghostlike effect on both sides similar in effect to the image below.

Spirit Photograph, Harry Houdini with Ghost of Abraham Lincoln, by Harry Houdini, via Wikimedia Comm

Truly, here at conservation HQ nothing actually strikes fear into our hearts more than unintentionally bad advice gone horribly awry. We've written a few posts on our conservative conservator approach to opening and unrolling rolled photographs, trying to strike a balance between too little and too much information (i.e. just enough to not get non-conservators in too deep). Some other authors online have taken it upon themselves to offer some pretty scary advice, such as steaming the roll with a steam iron or soaking the rolled photograph and then unrolling it in water. These both send shivers down my spine, and if you want to know why in great detail, you may dress up like a conservation student and read all about Properties and Stability of Gelatin Layers in Photographic Materials and their infinite variety of susceptibilities. Not all photographs are the same, and to give you an idea of what could happen, I'll just give you the cheat sheet by suggesting you imagine taking a steam iron or a hot soak to your favorite Halloween wiggly gelatin dessert. Bad idea, unless you want your dessert and photo to potentially look like The Blob or The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Box of Eyes, October 25, 2009, by Overduebook.

In contrast to the unintentially bad advice gone wrong, there are some fairly on point instructions to be found online to help people humidify and flatten panoramic photographs. I found that an independent archivist has posted a photo-illustrated adaptation for the home user of a process written up by the National Park Service for their Museum Management Program, which does not give us the willies due to the care built into their setup. That said, for attempting either of these I would increase the safety factor further by choosing not to have free water available that could splash on to the photo if their container was bumped, but instead pour the water first onto clean absorbent blotter or bleed-proof toweling until that is saturated. I would also avoid the use of wax paper during drying, substituting silicon coated paper without creases or wrinkles. (Always note: consulting a conservator is best, especially if the object is resistant to movement, or if there appears to be writing on it or prior damage to the object.)

We recently had another panorama in the lab, and we put it through the gentle humidification process we describe in our posts listed below. This occasion also allowed us to addess what isn't discussed in any of these posts, namely how to store an awkwardly long photograph, say over six feet, afterwards if you do not have the space to store it flat between an archival folder and boards. Generally this technique is used for oversize flexible objects, such as textiles and massive works on paper. Occasionally when we must, we adapt the technique for smaller objects and roll onto large (to scale) archival paper core supports. This prevents crushing and increases the circumference versus rolling them around themselves like little cigarettes.  If only Halloween pranksters would re-roll after toilet papering some unfortunate person’s home!  Here is a short video of how we do it if  a work is too large for flat file storage.

Happy and safe Halloween, everybody! May you take many pictures and keep them safe from becoming ghosts of themselves. 

Related Resources


Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.