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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Conservation Work Saves Blackwood Films

blackwood films  

Zach Long, a conservation technician at the Weissman Preservation Center, cleans reels of film under a fume hood.


January 14, 2011 – Film conservators at the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) and Weissman Preservation Center recently completed a massive effort to slow or stop damage to thousands of hours of film – including hundreds of hours of one-of-a-kind out-takes – that capture virtually every important painter, sculptor, musician, film director, architect or choreographer working in the United States during the late 20th century.

Part of the Michael Blackwood Collection, the films were presented to the library several years ago, but didn’t begin arriving at the HFA until last year. It quickly became clear, however, that as much as two-thirds of the collection was deteriorating due to age, poor storage conditions, or had suffered damage of one sort or another, and was in danger or being lost forever.

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“The value of this collection lies in the intimate, backstage perspective it offers on the creative life of some of the most important artistic figures of the 20th century,” said HFA Director Haden Guest. “Understanding the importance of this material, we had staff within hours working to protect the films and ensure they were stored in conditions that would halt any further deterioration.”

Performing that preservation work fell to film conservators from the HFA and the Weissman Preservation Center, who were confronted with a variety of problems.

Though some of Blackwood’s collection had been stored in a film vault in New York City, hundreds of boxes of film had also been stored for decades in a barn on an upstate New York farm. The resulting damage, Film Conservator Elizabeth Coffey said, included water and mold damage, as well as “vinegar syndrome,” a type of deterioration that happens when acetate film decays and releases acetic acid, resulting in a characteristic vinegary smell.

By far the most worrisome, Coffey said, was the mold. Aside from the spiderweb-like damage the mold causes to the film, the risk that even small amounts of mold might “infect” other items or other collections meant the boxes of film had to be quickly contained to prevent contamination.

“When the boxes came in, we realized the mold was going to be a huge problem,” Coffey said. “We immediately called HCL Operations, and within a day of the boxes arriving, everything was bagged so the mold couldn’t spread.”

  blackwood films

A close-up view of a 16mm film reel shows the mold found on many of the Blackwood films. The mold was removed using alcohol, and the films were placed in cold storage.

The mold remediation effort began by sending the films to a salvage company, where the films were removed from their original boxes and placed in new, clean containers.  Those new boxes were then sent to the Weissman Preservation Center, where Coffey and Assistant Film Conservator Amy Sloper began the work of opening every one of the thousands of film canisters, removing mold from the film itself, and placing each in a new, clean canister.

“It was very unpredictable,” Coffey said, of the work. “In many instances, there was just a little bit of mold, but in other cases we opened cans and the film might be fine, or might be covered with mold.”

To prevent deterioration, films are typically housed in cold storage until they are requested by faculty or researchers. Before placing the Blackwood material in storage, Coffey and Sloper cleaned the mold from the outside of each film reel using alcohol, then cataloged each item. While some mold may still be present inside the reels, it will be rendered dormant by the cold storage. Decisions about more extensive treatment, Coffey said, will be based on which items are requested most often by students and scholars.

The films affected by vinegar syndrome, Coffey said, were also placed in cold storage – at a different facility from the “healthy” film – which should significantly slow any further deterioration. While the damage thus far is relatively minor, vinegar syndrome can cause acetate film to shrink and become brittle, and in extreme cases can cause the photo emulsion to flake off the film stock. Given their fragility, however, the films affected by vinegar syndrome are a priority for transfer to a more stable format, such as a digital master tape.

The completion of the conservation work and cataloging of the damaged films means HFA staff can now turn their attention to the remainder of the Blackwood material. The collection arrived with an extensive inventory, which HFA staff members have used as a guide during cataloging.

Until the cataloging is completed, scholars interested in using the collection may contact the HFA to inquire about access to a particular film.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Blackwood and his brother Christian began making documentaries for German television profiling prominent artists. After moving to the U.S., Blackwood continued producing films for decades, eventually building a vast oeuvre that constitutes a veritable who’s-who of late-20th century art.

“For art historians, painting conservators and even scholars interested in understanding the physical objects created by these artists, the films of the Blackwood collection will be of great interest,” Guest said. “The films not only give viewers the chance to see an artist like Roy Lichtenstein discussing his method, but the chance to see how a specific work is constructed, as well as his approach to materials and technique.”