Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Purcell's Eloquent Eggs: A Preservationist's Viewpoint

Allen C. Benson
Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences

Eloquent Eggs & Disintegrating Dice is the subject of the current exhibit at Silver Eye Center for Photography, Pittsburgh. The exhibit, which runs from September 25-November 29, 2008, consists of works by internationally acclaimed Rosamond Purcell, an American photographer working in fine art and documentary photography.

Dedicated to photography as art, Silver Eye Center for Photography is one of Pittsburgh’s best-known galleries displaying a wide variety of styles and formats ranging from classic black & white gelatin-silver prints to experimental color inkjet prints. Amanda Bloomfield, Silver Eye’s Public Relations Coordinator shown in Figure 1, discusses preservation and security issues from the gallery’s perspective. She explains that using hidden screws to fasten picture frames to the wall instead of hanging prints with wire stabilizes the prints and adds a measure of security.

Figure 1 Amanda Bloomfield of Sliver Eye Center for Photography, explaining how picture frames are secured to the wall. (Black & white, gelatin-silver print, 2008, Allen C. Benson.)

Eloquent Eggs & Disintegrating Dice comprises 45 archival inkjet color prints exploring two themes: (1) images of birds, bird nests, feathers and eggs found in the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California, and (2) images of magician Rick Jay’s disintegrating dice. The six color prints of dice included in this show present archivists with a paradoxical view of their worst nightmare: vibrantly colored images of cellulose nitrate breakdown, beautifully framed and hung in a gallery setting, intriguing historical records and evidence of decay. One photograph in particular called “Dice in Bottle” has a background story that reads like a mystery novel. Rick Jay, author of Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck (Figure 2), describes how twenty-four small bone dice were found buried in silt near London Bridge, encapsulated in a feeding trough from a late-fifteenth-century birdcage. Jay explains how these dice are evidence of illicit dicing. X-ray photographs have shown that eleven of the dice are injected with mercury to favor rolling fours and fives and two others are fixed to roll the ace and deuce. The remaining six are misspotted “high men” and “low men,” the former being marked with only the numbers four, five, and six repeated and the later with only one, two, or three spots repeated. Jay surmises that the culprit who made his living with these dice probably slung them into the Thames while fleeing from the police.

Figure 2 Book cover: Dice: Deception Fate & Rotten Luck.

The color plates in the book are small in comparison to the original, large format prints hanging in the exhibit, but still they capture the surreal nature of what is taking place during the various stages of disintegration. The cellulose nitrate used in making Jay’s dice is the same material used in the early manufacture of motion-picture film and photographic negatives. Proper storage and handling of cellulose nitrate-based film is an often-discussed topic among preservationists who are trying to extend the life and usefulness of their film collections. Jay describes the process of decomposition as follows: “The crystallization begins on the corners and then spreads to the edges. Nitric acid is released in a process called outgassing. The dice cleave, crumble, and then implode.” Archivists may view realia at this stage of disintegration as justification for immediate de-accessioning and removal from the collection, but Purcell found in their melted, discolored, dusty appearance an element of visual intrigue and beauty, a subject of artistic expression.

In Figure 3, direct, mid-afternoon sunlight is beginning to stream in through the display window and can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of the photograph. Bloomfield explains that natural light entering the gallery is a concern and is controlled by two sets of blinds on the front display windows. One set is opaque and another set is partially transparent. She knows that systems like this are dependent on humans paying close attention to environmental conditions, making judgments and taking appropriate actions. It is mid-afternoon as she watches carefully the angle of the natural light as it shifts and begins streaming into the gallery’s display window.

Figure 3 Amanda Bloomfield describing Purcell’s interest in photographing birds.
(Black & white, gelatin-silver print, 2008, Allen C. Benson.)

Another preservation concern shared by galleries and artists is the framing process. Bloomfield said that some exhibitors use UV protected glass when framing images, but in this particular exhibit Purcell chose not to. The Gallery’s Executive Director, Linda Benedict-Jones, curated the collection and it is only being shown at Silver Eye Center for Photography. The fact that this show is a one-time event rather than a traveling show may explain Purcell’s decision to use standard glass rather than UV protected. The frames used in the exhibit were built by a local framer, LaFond Galleries, and features a frame system that floats the glass away from the surface of the print. The prints themselves are printed using archival quality pigment inks on archival, fine art, watercolor paper.

Whether or not you can visit the Silver Eye Center for Photography to see this show in person, Ricky Jay’s book with Rosamond Purcell’s’ photographs is a must have for it provides an expanded selection of images intermixed with Jay’s dicey history. The book is constructed around 12 short essays including poetry and historical anecdotes. Jay, a magician and historian of magic, traces the existence of dice from “the dirt excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum,” to the Creoles of New Orleans. He includes a section “When a Die Dies” that describes some of the chemistry behind his collection of self-destructing plastic dice. Jay explains, “In 1868 John Wesley Hyatt formed a substance from a homogeneous colloidal dispersion of nitric acid, sulphuric acid, cotton fibers, and champhor.” According to Jay, this was the material of choice for making dice up until the middle of the twentieth century when it was replaced with “less flammable cellulose acetate.” Published by The Quantuck Lane Press (First Edition, 2003), this small, thin volume can easily be read in the time it takes a commuter to travel from home to office. Anyone wishing to learn more about the Silver Eye Center for Photography, shown in Figure 4, can either visit their website at or call them at 412-431-5777.

Figure 4 Silver Eye Center for Photography (2008). East Carson Street, South Side, Pittsburgh. Black & white gelatin-silver print. Allen C. Benson.