Yale-Princeton student partnership bridges art and science to illuminate the early photographers

By Jon Atherton, Yale West Campus, and Erin Firestone, Princeton University Art Museum

Preparations for the first retrospective exhibition of photography by Clarence Hudson White (1871–1925) has inspired an unexpected collaboration between students at Princeton and Yale.

Immersed in the real-life setting of the Princeton University Art Museum, six undergraduates from Yale and three grad students from Princeton have come together in an unprecedented network spanning institutional and disciplinary boundaries as varied as their own majors.

Conceptualizing the project, Paul Messier at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH), and Anne McCauley, the David Hunter McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art at Princeton, set out to enhance scholarly understanding of White’s work prior to an upcoming exhibition curated by McCauley.

“I had already consulted with Paul about a paper I was writing on Man Ray and we talked about the problem of identifying Clarence White’s processes,” reflected McCauley.

The pair quickly recognized that in-depth technical analysis would be needed to answer questions about the great transitions that took place during the “Pictorialism” period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Spurning straightforward exposures for more experimental techniques, pioneers like Clarence White used hand-coated papers, emulsions, pigments, and platinum for layered and more sophisticated images.

“The processes and working methods of the period have been challenging for art historians and scholars to distinguish in great detail,” said Messier, the Pritzker Director of the Lens Media Lab at IPCH. “Luckily we are surrounded by the most diverse range of expertise, in rare photography, analytical techniques, and across the humanities. Our students embody this diversity and drive.”

Partnering with Anikó Bezur, the Wallace S. Wilson Director of the Technical Studies Lab at IPCH, the pair selected undergraduate students from across Yale, including chemistry, cognitive sciences, biomedical engineering, art history, mechanical engineering, sociology, gender studies, and Russian literature majors. An X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) “boot camp” was organized by Bezur, and the students were ready to undertake real-world analysis of Princeton’s White collection. 

In addition to its portability, Bezur uses the elemental analysis technique to successfully characterize inorganic materials without the need for invasive sampling.

“The XRF measures the number and energy of fluorescent x-rays, with a resulting spectrum of peaks at locations (or energies) corresponding to elements present, just like a fingerprint,” she explains. “It enables us to identify photographic processes based on substrate, image forming material, and toner, and make new data accessible to scholars for the first time.”

With the portable instruments accompanying the Yale team to Princeton, the students set to work with their counterparts examining the Clarence White photographs, completing over 80 photographs over two days to establish approximate timelines for each based on the metals used to form the images.

The Yale team have now analyzed the results from the workshop and their findings indicate a re-assignment rate of around 30%. Having uncovered the processes that White used, the next step is to make the new data accessible to scholars for the first time.

“The results from this work will allow us in the exhibition catalogue to confirm the process identifications of the prints from the analysis,” explained McCauley. “And thanks to Katherine Bussard, curator of photography at the Art Museum, the partnership enabled our history of photography graduate students to see how XRF works and what it can tell us.”

For Archeology major Julia Tofan (Yale ’20), the opportunity to conduct hands-on analysis of the White prints proved to be invaluable. “To be this close to the history of photography, to use live scientific techniques on the art form, and to be part of the effort to help with Princeton’s exhibition, has been a unique experience,” she said. “We’ve all been inspired by the support for the collaboration.”

“Working with our colleagues from Yale and seeing the data generate live on screen, I came to realize the range of expressive effects Clarence White was able to produce from the array of common photographic processes,” said Daniel Peacock, graduate student at Princeton in the department of Art and Archaeology. “I left the workshop appreciating the Pictorialist toolkit as more complicated and experimental than I had expected.”

“All the students did an amazing job,” concludes Messier. “Other collections from the period probably have similar, or an even greater, rates of misclassification. This data point alone will inspire other curators and conservators to improve the accuracy of their catalog assignments of art photography from this moment in its history.”

Clarence White and His World:  The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895–1925 will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from October 7, 2017 through January 7, 2018; Davis Museum, Wellesley College from February 7 through June 3, 2018; Portland Museum of Art, Maine from June 30 through September 16, 2018; Cleveland Museum of Art from October 21, 2018 through January 21, 2019.

Funding for the XRF workshop was provided in part by the Dean for Research Innovation Fund, Princeton University.