Who Knew This Would Last?

Feb 26, 2014

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by Patti Ford

Jim Reilly in 1982To many CIAS faculty, staff, and students, the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) is a mysterious place on the second floor of the Gannett Building. From humble beginnings thirty-five years ago (one darkroom and some borrowed glassware), today IPI is an internationally recognized preservation research laboratory providing education, products, and services to cultural institutions around the world. Jim Reilly has been at the helm the entire time, pursuing the funding and developing the staff needed to continue what he started.

In 1978 Elliot Rubenstein, a Professor of Photography at RIT, met Jim Reilly and learned of his interest in 19th century photography and the fledgling field of photograph preservation. He recommended Jim to Dr. Russell Kraus, the then-new Director of the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at RIT. Dr. Kraus offered him a part-time job (at a salary of $1,500/year!) researching the causes of deterioration of albumen prints. Jim formed the RIT Photographic Preservation Laboratory, and within two years, was able to obtain enough grant money from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a full-time position for himself.

This small preservation laboratory at RIT officially became the Image Permanence Institute in 1985, through a partnership of RIT and the Society of Photographic Scientists and Engineers (now known as the Society for Imaging Science and Technology). The imaging industry provided $400,000, largely due to the efforts of Kodak Executive Allie C. Peed, Jr. and Dr. Thomas Iten, Director of the photography school at RIT, who named Jim Reilly IPI’s first (and so far, only) Director. At the time, the photographic industry was struggling to reassure the public that its products were as stable as they claimed, and IPI could fund its research by charging fees for independent testing of these products.

Shortly after IPI was formed, the photo industry made improvements in stability and no longer needed a third-party lab to test their products, eliminating testing as a reliable income source. By choice and necessity, Jim focused on obtaining funds for the preservation research that was his true interest all along. Primarily because of his efforts, IPI has received tremendous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. In 2013, IPI received over $1,086,000 in federal grants, two from the Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership program, and two from the National Endowment for the Humanities (read more on IPI’s website at www.imagepermanenceinstitute.org).

Samples in oven

IPI’s initial focus was on the development of preservation practices for photographs, film, and other imaging media. Studies included the deterioration of nineteenth-century photographic prints, the decay of nitrate and acetate film due to heat, humidity and air pollution, the fading of microfilm and color photography, and the preservation of safety film. IPI developed accelerated-aging test methods for determining the suitability of materials used for photo storage (the Photographic Activity Test or PAT) and a product that measures the severity of acetate deterioration in film collections (A-D Strips).

Jim was recently asked why the preservation of museum and library collections mattered to him. “Because I have loved photography since my father built a darkroom in our house when I was about 10 years old. Though I was never very good at picture-taking, photography had it all for me—it was fun, full of mysterious technical challenges, and a gateway to history. It led me to the broader field of preservation, which opened the door to the whole world of beautiful things and people who care about them. I like being around cultural heritage and I like to feel that my work is making a difference in its continued survival.”

Largely because of Jim’s interests and enthusiasm, IPI’s work today is focused on three broad fronts: optimal management of the storage environment, digital print preservation, and the documentation and dissemination of knowledge about photographs. 

In the 1990’s IPI developed algorithms to measure and quantify the effects of heat and moisture in storage conditions on the rate of material decay. This led to the creation of a datalogger (PEM2®) designed specifically for use in cultural institutions and web-based data management software (www.eclimatenotebook.com) used to analyze temperature and humidity data and calculate the relative risk of deterioration for materials in cultural collections. IPI’s research in this area has evolved into a consulting service centered on environmental monitoring, mechanical system analysis, and sustainable preservation practices for managing the storage environment. 

IPI has been involved in significant work on the preservation of digitally printed material to help collection staff better understand and care for these materials, which are entering institutional collections at an increasing rate. Research projects in IPI’sDP3 (Digital Print Preservation Portal) Project include study of the sensitivity of inkjet prints to abrasion, air pollutants, high humidity, flooding, and other disasters. It is likely that IPI’s research findings will influence ISO Standards concerning the storage and handling of these materials. More information is available on the DP3 website (www.dp3project.org).

In the last decade a web resource that presents a unique, object-based approach to the identification and characterization of prints and photographs has been developed under Jim’s guidance.Using IPI’s extensive research collection, library, and lab facilities, Graphics Atlas (www.GraphicsAtlas.org) provides a broad understanding of the materials and techniques associated with traditional photography and print-making to document, illustrate, and preserve the legacy of photography

Dr. Peter Z. Adelstein, who joined IPI in 1986 after retiring from Kodak, and continued there as a research scientist until retiring at age 88 in 2012, noted in his memoir that “IPI is the major independent laboratory in the world with the focus on the permanence of images and cultural property. This recognition is solely due to the foresight and innovation of Jim Reilly. It is unusual that a single person can change the prevailing technology so much. With a staff of seventeen, excellent physical facilities, and an outstanding international reputation, Reilly has every reason to be proud of his accomplishments. Yet there is no trace of conceit or self-importance in his personality.” 

Jim Reilly recently noted his surprise and gratitude that “a guy like me, who never had a job for more than a year and a half at a time, could spend thirty successful years with great people, enjoying almost every minute of it, and feel like I genuinely made a difference.”