Conserving the Everyday
How can we make sure our favorite snapshots don’t fade away?
What role do photographs play in everyday life? This question lies at the heart of Visual Vernaculars, a presentation that draws from MoMA’s expansive collection of what are often called vernacular photographs, due to their relationship to forms of expression beyond the formal context of fine art. In developing this gallery, curators from the Department of Photography worked closely with members of MoMA’s Conservation Department—including photo conservators, paper conservators, and conservation scientists—who studied and tested the ink signatures present on many of the photographs. Their invaluable research tells us which works could be displayed safely, and demonstrates the crucial collaborations that take place at the Museum everyday. In the fall of 2023, Oluremi C. Onabanjo and I sat down with members of the Conservation Department to discuss the work they do here at the Museum, and their favorite photographs from Visual Vernaculars.
—Antoinette D. Roberts
Installation view of Visual Vernaculars
Antoinette D. Roberts: Visual Vernaculars lives on our fifth floor, as part of our earliest collection galleries. It looks at the role of vernacular photographs after the rise of the Kodak camera in 1888 and the role of personal photographs in everyday people’s lives. It was a way to construct a self-image, community image, and an individual’s image in that community as well.
Oluremi C. Onabanjo: Yes, we worked on this gallery together over the course of a year in collaboration with the American poet Robin Coste Lewis, who was a Ford Scholar in Residence in the Department of Photography. During this process, Robin brought her own perspective and passion for the photographic medium and its ability to tell stories. We’re really fortunate to have not only her eyes making the selection, but also her words as the extended labels that accompany the installation.
Lee Ann Daffner and Annie Wilker with microfade tester (MFT)
Lee Ann Daffner: This particular project is emblematic of our approach to the care of vernacular photographs in the Museum. As conservators, early in our professional training and then throughout our work, we strive to treat all materials with the same level of care. With photography, that can be an interesting and sometimes challenging conundrum because photographic collections can be so vast.
Vernacular photography collections include images that we’re familiar with and that we’ve all grown up with. This intimacy speaks to a whole other experience of photography separate from fine art photography.
Annie Wilker: One thing I really liked about this project is that it let me collaborate with Lee Ann. Most of the time, I work solely on paper objects (like drawings or documents), while Lee Ann focuses on photographic materials. But with Visual Vernaculars, you were including photographs with handwritten ink inscriptions on them, so that brought together our two specialties.
Lee Ann Daffner: When I noticed the colored inks on many of these great pictures, it became clear that the color of the ink was critical to understanding what these objects were. Knowing that inks are light-sensitive, I suggested to the curators that we talk to Annie because she is a paper conservator, and she is more familiar with inks than I am. As soon as Annie had a look, she suggested we carry out microfading. So, that’s the path to which science was brought in.
Annie Wilker: When you asked me to look at these photographs, it was the purple ink that jumped out at me first. Traditionally, in my mind, purple is one of those colors that will be more likely to be light-sensitive. As soon as I saw that, I got in touch with Abed and Kyna.
Oluremi C. Onabanjo: Thank you all for laying out this important collaboration between different kinds of conservation practice and science. Now that Visual Vernaculars is on view, could you share your favorite photographs in the installation?
Visual Vernaculars: An Ode to Everyday Images
Poet Robin Coste Lewis draws inspiration from extraordinary photos.
Robin Coste Lewis, Oluremi C. Onabanjo
Aug 4, 2023
No New Thing
Black Archives founder Renata Cherlise presents a selection of photographs from MoMA’s collection that highlight everyday moments of Black life.
Feb 14, 2022