Capturing Expertise for the Evaluation of Photographs
First Monday

Capturing Expertise for the Evaluation of Photographs by Roger Bruce

How is an archivist or curator to know if a supposed vintage photograph is the real thing? This is an important question for historians who must establish the veracity of information that inheres in the image, or for collectors who must verify the pedigree of the photograph as antique object. George Eastman House of Rochester, New York is building its CEEP (Capturing Expertise for Evaluation of Photographs) database to provide information on distinguishing characteristics of materials, processes, and methods used in the production of historic images. Project Co–director Roger Bruce describes this unprecedented work to document the fundamental stuff of connoisseurship for fine photographs.


Need for a Resource
Gathering the Data
Conclusion: Employing the Information




Here is a case history based on a work in progress — a mild contradiction, but I hope, a useful tale for cultural organizations attempting to aggregate knowledge from disparate areas of expertise. Capturing Expertise for the Evaluation of Photographs (CEEP) is an initiative of George Eastman House with support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to integrate information from multiple disciplines into a data resource that will assist in the proper identification of historical photographs.

George Eastman House and other collectors of photographs — museums, art dealers, university libraries and individuals — have historically relied on experts who possess refined sensitivity to details of style, texture, paper, biography, photochemistry, and the characteristic deteriorations of photographic emulsions. In short, our field has depended on the authority of connoisseurs to make decisive judgments as to authenticity, attribution, technical process, and aesthetic merit. While museums and galleries generally employ such experts, a growing market for fine photographs has outstripped the ability of many established institutions to maintain a consensus as to the identity of individual objects amidst growing traffic in the photographic print. To address this problem, Eastman House proposed the project that we are calling Capturing Expertise for the Evaluation of Photographs. The project is currently employing a wiki database as the container for the information it gathers.




Why would Eastman House presume to do this project? George Eastman House has been in operation since 1950 when it was a foundational institution for the formal study of a history of photography. The Museum behaved as a remedial project on behalf of the photograph — working to elevate the medium in the popular imagination. The very idea of a History of Photography was so intellectually compact and so stable that the collection at Eastman House could be treated as the canon from which we might illustrate that history. The seminal publication The History of Photography, by Beaumont Newhall was based largely on the photographs and supporting documents housed in the Museum’s collection. In subsequent decades, Eastman House and a growing community of collecting institutions and dealers were so successful in their evangelism on behalf of the neglected medium of photography that demand for historical images increased. Historic images were a splendid collectable and could be priced at a point recently vacated by fine art prints, etchings, or more precious one–of–a–kind media.

As the history of the photograph began to achieve some credibility as an academic study, and as institutions sought to obtain significant photographs for their collections, museums saw the need for greater expertise in the storage and treatment of the photographic print. The practice of photograph preservation may not have originated at George Eastman House, but it did emerge there in the early 1970s in response to a growing acceptance of photography as an art form and a burgeoning field of fine art photography. Young artists were getting MFA degrees in photography and there was a concomitant need to study the history of the medium. Students and faculty increased demand for access to the Museum’s collections for the purposes of study, duplication, and publication. Within the Eastman House professional staff was a growing awareness of how little was known about the proper care of photographs as objects. At the same time, young photographers were exploring both the aesthetics and the craft of the medium and researching the formularies of nineteenth century image–making with the intent of replicating many of the earlier methods.

Within a few decades, the simple challenge of holding and exhibiting important photographs grew in complexity and attracted the intersection of more and more specialized knowledge (Figure 1).


Figure 1
Figure 1.




Need for a Resource

Today, the professionalization of museums and the need to train future museum professionals increases pressure to establish standards and best practices that will spread among the world’s cultural heritage institutions. But for the evaluation of photographs, there have been special challenges. Our field has depended on the refined authority of connoisseurs who have devoted their careers to the collection and care of photographs within a relatively small number of organizations while commercial and cultural traffic in fine photographs has boomed. As a consequence, rapid growth in the market for collectable photographs underscores the need for documented standards of evaluation. Recently, a single photographic print by the artist Edward Steichen sold for just less than three million dollars (Figure 2).


Figure 2
Figure 2: Roger Tooth, The Guardian (15 February 2006).


Prior to this, the discovery that prints of images by the documentary photographer Lewis Hine had been forged, reminded us that the monetary incentive to fake vintage photographs coexists with growing awareness of and technical facility with earlier photographic processes (Figure 3).


Figure 3
Figure 3: Richard Woodward, Atlantic Monthly (June 2003).


Connoisseurs are not so easily replicated. Their expertise is expressed in the ineffable taste and judgment of curatorial practice. Could it be practical to attempt the capture and quantification of such specialized knowledge? Our work with the CEEP Project assumes that it is.



Gathering the Data

CEEP is predicated on the assumption that a significant portion of photography connoisseurship can be gathered into a publishable resource. Eastman House has accepted the task of compiling inter–institutional analytical and art historical information on the characteristics of aesthetically or historically significant photographic prints. The Project is building a resource of reference material with data derived from material–based science and research; surface characterization studies; conservation condition reporting and observation of physical attributes including signatures, stamps, and marks; and, art historical and provenance research. Our long–range commitment is to maintain CEEP as an online tool to compare authenticated examples with specific photographic prints — providing a means to discern and differentiate the inherent characteristics of photographs.

The CEEP information resource is being built using the open source groupware application MediaWiki. This is the same software engine that underlies Wikipedia, the phenomenally popular online encyclopedia. Unlike Wikipedia, however, the CEEP databases are not being added to or edited by the general public. Initially, Eastman House had hoped that representitives of peer groups of conservators, curators, historians, chemists, and others would participate directly in the task of contributing to the wiki database. We were wrong. By reputation, wiki software is user–friendly and intuitive but advanced professionals in a variety of disciplines found the learning curve too steep to be employed as a part of their routine interaction with the Project. The solution was to hire a project manager who also happened to have the software skills to act as a human interface between the database and our growing community of expert contributors.

Having established the tools and pathway for the capture our information, we needed to test our assumptions concerning the efficient use of available experts. For example, should we jump directly into the specifics of antique process chemistry, or build a compendium of all the photographic printing papers ever manufactured? It appears that accurate analysis and evaluation of individual objects will indeed require this level of granularity. It would be through the use of searchable resources like these that the ultimate authority of CEEP would depend.

Museum staff and advisors were soon aware that gathering data for the Project will likely be an ongoing and open–ended labor, but to be useful as quickly as possible, CEEP would need to exemplify all of the types of information that would be needed to properly characterize photographs. Hence, analysis of appropriate samples, research records, and other data would need to populate some portion of most, if not all, of the variables in the CEEP wiki database. We would need at least some paper type characterizations, a good collection of deterioration samples, demonstrations of artist signature variations over time, and so forth.

CEEP’s short–term goal is to achieve useful modeling of variable characteristics of cultural heritage photographs — a resource that can be easily employed across multiple institutions and eventually by the general public. It would be helpful to future users of CEEP if it were to contain an itemized deconstruction of significant and well–known images that appear (as unique prints) in several different collections or multiple institutions. To accomplish this, the Project will provide general reference tools such as glossaries, paper sample profiles, and deterioration samples (Figure 4 through Figure 7).


Figure 4
Figure 4: Typical period darkroom guide containing sample papers (Eastman Kodak Company, 1964).



Figure 5
Figure 5: Paper sample (Kodak Medalist, “J” surface) with corner cutout for microscopic examination (Eastman Kodak Company, 1964).



Figure 6
Figure 6: Confocal micrograph showing surface topography of above paper sample (Three–dimensional images representing surface characteristics of a popular photographic paper), George Eastman House Advanced Residency Program, 2008.



Figure 7
Figure 7: Screenshot from CEEP Project wiki showing artist signature variation over time.


Supplementing the more generic reference tools that typify materials and conditions, the Project has chosen a relatively small number of signature images to serve as an armature for fully populated records. The data for these key images will be useful to Project contributors and end users because they will exemplify sets of fully characterized photographs. The first of these images to be selected for complete characterization was Lewis Hine’s Powerhouse Mechanic (Figure 8).


Figure 8
Figure 8: Powerhouse Mechanic, photograph by Lewis Hine, Collection of George Eastman House.


This iconic image is represented in several institutional collections by photographs that vary subtly from print to print in their cropping, condition, tonality, or other characteristics. Important information is often gathered from the back of the photograph where the photographer’s studio stamp or signature may provide clues as to the date of printing or the documentary project of which the image was a part. Use of multiple versions of Powerhouse Mechanic is in evidence on the main page of the Project’s wiki (Figure 9).


Figure 9
Figure 9: Main page for the CEEP wiki showing use of multiple versions of Lewis Hine’s Powerhouse Mechanic.


Because the CEEP Project will routinely tap practitioners working in advanced subspecialties, the Project’s management has from time to time needed to resist the pursuit of excessively granular technical data. For example, the electron microscope may obtain definitive information on distinguishing features of the surface of a daguerreotype, but few cultural institutions would have access to such exotic equipment for the analysis of objects under their care. Data–gathering methodologies that are entirely reasonable for a well–equipped specialist may appear as sheer scrupulosity from the point of view of collecting institutions or individual users.



Conclusion: Employing the Information

The people providing content for the CEEP database anticipate three general types of users. First among these are those with responsibility for the care and proper identification historic photographs such as curators and archivists. Second, students and scholars needing to establish the authenticity of photographs as primary resources should be able to use the Project’s database as a quantified connoisseurship — one that will at least allow the user to enumerate specific reasons for accepting or doubting the authenticity of a photograph. And third, collectors of photographs will find a growing body of authoritative information to assist in the general reduction of uncertainly in the acquisition of works.

Long term, the lasting utility of Capturing Expertise for the Evaluation of Photographs will be measured by its value for the authentication of photographic prints, daguerreotypes, negatives, and related materials. For students of the history of photography, these data will help to frame key characteristics of antique process, chemistry, and techniques for photographic methods that are vanishing from contemporary practice. And perhaps most significant, students and professionals with custodial responsibility for photographs will possess detailed benchmarks for the profiling of particular objects to determine appropriate treatment for conservation and preservation. End of article


About the author

Roger Bruce is Director of Interpretation at the George Eastman House Museum of Photography & Film ( in Rochester, New York.
E–mail: rbruce [at] geh [dot] org


Editorial history

Paper received 4 August 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Roger Bruce.

Capturing Expertise for the Evaluation of Photographs
by Roger Bruce
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 8 - 4 August 2008

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