US & World

New invention at Getty helps authenticate antique photographs

Digital picture taking has sealed the tomb of chemically-processed photography as we've known it. But there's still a lot of interest, especially in the museum world, in pre-digital photography. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez says scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute have unveiled a new invention they call a breakthrough in photo conservation and authentication.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Over 35 years, David Fahey's developed an educated eye.

David Fahey: This is a contemporary, later print by Cartier-Bresson. You can see here how clean and fresh this photograph looks.

Guzman-Lopez: It's called Siphnos, a high-contrast black-and-white image of a girl darting up stairs between the white facades of a Greek village. Cartier-Bresson sealed the image with the snap of a shutter in 1961. Fahey says if it were printed soon after that, it would fetch a lot more money.

Fahey: It's one of his famous pictures and I think on the open market today it's about $15,000. If it was a vintage print of this same image it would be $250,000.

Guzman-Lopez: Fahey credits his long experience as photographer, professor, and gallery owner for his expertise authenticating photographs. But every print's layers of chemicals and paper holds secrets even this expert can't claim to know. Now, scientists at the Getty Center in Brentwood are unveiling a suitcase-portable device able to uncover those secrets.

Sliding shelves in scientist Dusan Stulik's office hold a small sample of the more than 3 million photographs the Getty owns. A fleet of devices large and small help him identify how a photograph was created. Stulik holds two photos. He says one image printed on metal is a 19th century tintype. A simple test proves it.

Dusan Stulik: Using a very sophisticated technology which I stole from my wife, from the refrigerator, using the magnet. You can easily identify that this is a real tintype and this is a fake because it doesn't stick.

Guzman-Lopez: Next, Stulik takes out a kind of mallet attached by curly cord to something that looks like a supermarket price scanner. He waves it over a magazine-sized photograph of a woman. With Geiger counter clicks, the machine measures the presence of radiation.

Stulik: It proves us this photograph was toned to make it brown and reddish using uranium.

Guzman-Lopez: To determine a photo's chemical composition, Stulik and his assistants also use digital microscopes and infrared beams. Their methods will improve the care and conservation of rare prints so future generations may enjoy them. Stulik brags about the Cadillac of his devices – the XRF, a machine that looks like a fat packing tape dispenser mounted on a tripod.

Stulik: It looks very simple, but it's a very, very sophisticated piece of instrument which few years ago, was half of the room, full of equipment.

Guzman-Lopez: The key to the XRF hangs from a heavy Getty keychain. An assistant revs it up. It's quieter than a hybrid car.

Stulik: Here you can see a red light, so there is some prohibited area, because now we are emitting x-rays.
Guzman-Lopez: How far back should I stand?
Stulik: You are fine, we are fine, and we will survive.

Guzman-Lopez: The machine's engine – x-ray fluorescence spectrometry – isn't new. It identifies any known chemical. About 15 years ago Stulik saw that art conservators used the non-destructive technology on paintings and ancient vases, and decided to apply it to photographs. He says that three layers – think of a Boston cream pie – contain the photo's fingerprint.

Stulik: So there is the layer of dough, on top of it is cream, and there is another layer on top of it is chocolate, right? This is classical Boston cream pie.

Guzman-Lopez: Just as the best pie bakeries use premium ingredients, he says, a conservator can verify a 1940s Ansel Adams photograph by identifying all those layers.

Prices for work by Adams and other master photographers have boomed in the last decade. Last year, a buyer paid more than $300,000 for a 1930 photo by American Man Ray. Stulik says forgers are well aware that some prints can fetch a million dollars.

Stulik: Man Ray was target of forgers who were trying to put into the market a number of photographs they made a little bit later using different materials. And this is how our technique, which we are developing here at the Getty, can be used right away.

Guzman-Lopez: As more institutions use this technology, Stulik says photo conservators will generate a larger baseline of information. That's why the Getty's sharing what it knows with other experts.

Dusan Stulik earned wide praise in Paris late last year at a Henri Cartier-Bresson symposium, where he explained how the XRF could help better identify the master photographer's work. Owners of a Cartier-Bresson archive allowed Stulik to analyze more than 100 images.

His colleagues value the information. But he says he'll guard the details from everyone else. Why let forgers have the recipe for the best Boston cream pie?