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Treatment of a Photograph by Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (1912–2006) was a prominent African American photojournalist and fashion photographer active from the late 1930s through the 1990s. He was also a talented musician and writer who, in 1969, directed the first major Hollywood film by an African American, The Learning Tree, followed by the 1971 box-office hit Shaft.

Parks’s documentary work Tenement House, Ansonia, Connecticut, 1949, is one of a large group of photographs and films that were given to the Corcoran Gallery of Art by Parks in 1998 and are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.

Tenement House, Ansonia, Connecticut is a silver gelatin photograph that was mounted overall to a thick board. Years before it was given to the Corcoran, the print had suffered minor damage, including a red-orange stain in the emulsion layer that discolored the image and detracted from the composition. With many photographic materials, once a surface has been disfigured, it is difficult to reduce the visual impact of that damage. In addition, abrasion around the perimeter of the photograph resulted in tiny losses of the image in those areas.

Following thorough examination, digital images were taken to document the print’s condition before treatment. Next, the print was tested to design a safe conservation plan. After consulting with photograph curators and a Gallery conservation scientist, a written treatment proposal was approved and the treatment was performed.

The photograph’s stains were masked using a watercolor medium over an isolating layer. The losses at the edges were then inpainted to make them less noticeable. The treatment successfully helped to visually reintegrate the whole image. Tenement House, Ansonia, Connecticut is featured in the National Gallery’s exhibition Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950.

Gallery photograph conservator Ronel Namde inpaints Tenement House, Ansonia, Connecticut, 1949, using watercolors.

Before treatment

After treatment

Gordon Parks, Tenement House, Ansonia, Connecticut, 1949, gelatin silver print, image: 41.8 × 36.5 cm (16 7/16 × 14 3/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (The Gordon Parks Collection)

Detail (before treatment)

Detail (after treatment)