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On the Job

Photo conservator sees the big picture

Elena Bulat, who preserves and protects old photos, says people in her line of work must adapt tools from other disciplines. Her favorite tools include a set of fine spatulas.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Elena Bulat, who preserves and protects old photos, says people in her line of work must adapt tools from other disciplines. Her favorite tools include a set of fine spatulas.

The Weissman Preservation Center is home to a team of highly specialized conservators and technicians, dedicated to safeguarding millions of rare holdings — books, prints, manuscripts, maps, photographs, drawings — at Harvard Library.

As one of two preservation staff members dedicated to photo conservation, Elena Bulat describes her role as “chemist, art historian, photographer, and much, much more.”

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She came to Harvard seven years ago from the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., an international museum of photography and film.

Are photograph conservators a rare breed?

If you did an informal survey of photograph conservators across the globe, they number only about 70 or so. It’s a field so small that I know almost everyone by first name, whether in Europe, New Zealand, or Russia.

Many photos come to the lab to be stabilized before they are digitized. What’s an example?

Just recently I went through a series of late-19th-century photos from the Divinity School. They were silver gelatin photos, never mounted, and some were tightly rolled for storage. The photos were rehumidified by putting them in a special humidification chamber that has a soft mist. This relaxes the photos. Then they can be put under light pressure so the photos slowly acclimate to this new flattened state of being.

What are the tools of your trade?

Lots of brushes and scalpels. I have my own favorite set [of] scalpels that might be used by an orthodontist. Photo conservators have to adapt tools from different disciplines. Another favorite tool of mine is a great set of very fine spatulas.

What project are you working on?

We’re working on a “Salted Paper” photograph survey across Harvard repositories. Salted paper photographs are the earliest photographs on paper support. As we do the survey, we’re collecting all information about each photograph and its condition, as well planning for exhibitions and publications.

Do you ever worry about changing the nature of the original object by attempting to conserve it?

I’m a member of the American Institute for Conservation, a national organization that upholds professional standards, including a code of ethics. When there is a loss in a photo, for example, we do not try to recreate the image but rather match the tone of the area that is missing. So it might look like a blank white space.

How do you preserve your own photos?

I’m from St. Petersburg [Russia] and unfortunately all my family photographs from pre-Revolutionary time were destroyed. Some of my ancestors served in the Russian czar’s army. Albums are the best solution, but not magnetic albums with plastic sleeves, just regular, old-fashioned albums. For archiving my digital photographs, I am not doing anything special yet — shame on me!

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.
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