Material characterization is a central goal of the Thomas Walther Collection project. In technical art history and conservation, material characterization is the identification of the physical nature and source of materials used in the production of artifacts—in this case, the photographic prints in the Walther collection. In the methodology of materials-based studies, the artifact—the photographic print—reveals and defines itself through our examination and analysis of the parts that make up its visible and invisible material constituents: the paper support, baryta layer, emulsion, image material, and finishing practices. Considering these observations within the intersecting contexts of social and economic history, photography’s technical development, and what is known of the artist’s intent, we can draw a richer, more accurate map of an object’s lifespan.


Material evaluation of the prints in the Walther collection began on the outside, with the readily visible components, and moved inward, to the less-obvious interior constituents. The examination of a print can be as simple as turning it over to observe stamps, inscriptions, and brand markings, which, whether in abundance or conspicuously absent, give evidence of the source of the print and are helpful in reconstructing the work’s provenance. The paper’s format and its thickness, mounting, and retouching were observed and carefully measured, and its surface texture was assessed through human observation, raking-light photomicrography, and polynomial texture mapping. Identifying the processes and techniques used to make each print, we were able to launch a system of categories of paper type and process (silver gelatin or platinum print, contact print or enlargement), assisted by observations about the prints’ image tonality and paper color. The metallic image material and the primary components of the paper were deciphered through a variety of scientific instruments and forensic techniques; using ultraviolet illumination, X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry, and fiber analysis we gathered data from the photographs and organized it for statistical appraisal. This object-based observation and analysis was supplemented with primary documents: photographic journals, exhibition catalogues, and advertisements and price lists distributed by manufacturers.

Cross-section of a gelatin silver print, showing techniques used in the material analysis of a photograph. Department of Conservation, MoMA. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York


The Object:Photo website presents the results of this research: the largest body of raw data on a group of photographic artifacts ever gathered. This data powers the site’s visualizations, populates the artwork pages, and deeply informs the research presented in the essays. In addition, in this section of the site, several comprehensive charts give an overview of the characteristics of the prints in the collection. This section also houses detailed protocols for the suite of surface- and material-analysis techniques developed at MoMA for the study of the prints—from the measurement of a print’s dimensions with a tape measure to the analysis of its internal, elemental constitution via XRF. The goal in sharing these protocols is to make possible future comparisons that adhere to these published methods and procedures. As the field of digital humanities matures, we hope consortiums of like-minded researchers and institutions will seek to pool the results of analytic initiatives in an interdisciplinary fashion. Research models such as these, based on collaborative research, interpretation, and dialogue promise to bridge the allied fields of art-historical and materials research.

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